June 6, 2013 Updated: June 6, 2013 at 11:51 pm
Editor's note: There was a last minute cast change after we went to press. The role of Fagin will now be played by Drew Frady.
The Colorado Springs Conservatory gives kids a taste of what real life is like for professional actors and musicians.
Take, for instance, the final production of the conservatory's school year: the Tony Award-winning musical "Oliver!" It opens Thursday at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall.
The show, which is based on Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist," premiered on Broadway in 1963 and earned three Tonys. In the classic tale, young orphan Oliver runs away from the orphanage and falls in with a group of young boys under the nefarious tutelage of their wizened mentor, Fagin.
This is the sixth production of the conservatory's 2012-2013 year, says Linda Weise, who in 1994 founded the after-school program that trains kids ages 4-19 in the performing arts.
"It's wonderful for the kids. It's got great music," says director Jamie Richards. "I wanted to also explore some of the themes in 'Oliver!' Even though it's a musical and fun, there are darker tones to it. I love Dickens. We're going to try some new things."
Two of those new things? Fagin will be played as a woman by Weise, and the Oliver character will be played by 12-year-old Elizabeth Pond. However, in a last minute cast change made after going to press, the role of Fagin will now be played by Drew Frady.
When Richards and Weise first discussed doing the show, Richards was adamant that there be a role for Weise. "I'd never heard of a woman playing Fagin before," Richards says of the meaty character, which has been played by powerhouse actors such as Alec Guinness and Ben Kingsley. "There's a long tradition in the theater of women playing men, like Prospero and Hamlet, so we thought it would be fun."
"He's quite a character," Weise says. "It's pretty similar to life here at the conservatory. I'm surrounded by kids, and there is a den feel, especially when you're here a lot. There's a certain level of familiarity and joking around."
Pond, who is homeschooled and just finished sixth grade, already has some impressive acting experience on her resume. In December, she had her first paid role in the Fine Arts Center's production of "A Christmas Story." Previous shows include "Annie," "The Sound of Music" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," a conservatory production.
This is her biggest role and acting challenge yet.
"I'm grateful that I'm Oliver," Pond says. "It's exciting to have the experience of playing a boy and remembering to do more boyish mannerisms and not be a girl."
Richards is an actor and director in New York City. She served as executive producer of The Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, and produced premieres of plays by David Mamet, Arthur Miller, David Ives and others. She auditioned the conservatory students via Skype, and once the cast was assembled, they also did the first script read throughs over the computer. She arrived a week before opening night to stage it. In the meantime, the cast worked on choreography and dialect.
"Everybody's a human being to me. I don't make any special considerations for them as children," Richards said from New York City. "I speak to them as equals. The more you expect of them, the more they are really excited to meet you at that level."
Richards and Weise have known each other for almost 30 years, Weise says. They met when they both lived in New York City while they studied and worked in the performing arts. They waited tables together and became fast friends. After Weise returned to the Springs, she recruited Richards to help her with the conservatory, and she's been out almost every summer to teach acting workshops and direct. Last summer, she helmed "Fiddler on the Roof." Weise played Teyve's wife, Goldie.
"I've watched the conservatory grow from simple beginnings into a really important cultural place for Colorado Springs," Richards says. "They come in teeny tiny and sort of grow up there. Her kids are going to The Juilliard School, Oberlin College and coming to New York. They're starting to hit Broadway. The conservatory has had tremendous cultural influence on Colorado Springs."
Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.
Who: Colorado Springs Conservatory
When: 7 p.m. Thursday-June 15, 2 p.m. June 16
Where: Armstrong Hall, Colorado College, 14 E. Cache La Poudre St.
Tickets: $20, $10 children and students; 577-4556, csconservatory.org
Something else: In addition to the casting change, the conservatory has also altered the run schedule.