OLIVER! a hit in Majuro

A scene from Oliver! featuring Ratakin Zebedy as Mr. Bumble with Heleina Bill as the Widow Corney. The play opened March 4 and runs through March 9 at the International Conference Center in Majuro. Photo: Chewy Lin.
A scene from Oliver! featuring Ratakin Zebedy as Mr. Bumble with Heleina Bill as the Widow Corney. The play opened March 4 and runs through March 9 at the International Conference Center in Majuro. Photo: Chewy Lin.

JACK NIEDENTHAL

Everyone’s childhood should be filled with the magic of the world shepherded by loving parents, but this doesn’t always happen. Oliver! is a play about an orphan boy who yearns for a family as he survives the dark underworld of the 1830s London streets.

Oliver! has provided director Dr. Andrew Garrod with one of his greatest theatrical challenges because the cast that he assembled for this production is the youngest that he has every worked with. But the Monday and Tuesday performances have proven once again that this man continues to be filled to the brim with his own astonishing brand of magic and miracles. One marvels at the abilities of a man in his 80s to consistently hone often rambunctious youngsters into powerful, sophisticated actors and storytellers. Professor Garrod relentlessly demanding so much from this young cast, who then in turn universally respond to him with such love, affection and admiration, has made for an amazing production right from the opening scene.

Indeed, my favorite song of the play is the opening number, Food, Glorious Food, choreographed so beautifully by Ilona Bito and sung so hauntingly and energetically by our local children as food has always been one of the most essential elements of Marshallese culture. One of the first lessons I learned when I arrived in the RMI decades ago was if someone offers you food, you accept it and you eat it (no matter what it looks like).

The two boys who play Oliver on alternative nights, Laurence Underwood and AJ Nashion Kaneko, both nine years old, sing like angels and now act like seasoned vets. As the Prop Master in charge of the crew of awesome lads that get the chairs and tables and other props on and off the stage, I only “hear” the play from behind the sets. Each time these two boys are singing solos, I close my eyes and just listen, their stunning youthful voices can take you to places that you didn’t know existed. This is especially true when they sing Where is Love in the first act where Oliver aches for a mother’s love. In a matrilineal society, I am not sure what could be a more moving emotion.

Without question, the most charming character of the play is Fagin, played by Wilmer Joel, who is absolutely mesmerizing in this role. I honestly can’t imagine Fagin being played by anyone of any age better than this, his exemplary performance alone is worth the price of admission. One never grows tired of watching his multitude of facial expressions and his bodily contortions as he takes advantage of every square inch of the stage.

The character of Bill Sikes (Helton John and Duke Jendrikdrik) can be quite scary as this is a story of orphaned children coping with a violent, cruel world. They always say that when writing a story, if you are going to create an evil character, make them REALLY evil, and these guys portray Sikes as a truly bad, bad dude.

Both of the Artful Dodger actors (JoeNathan Defan and Tony Kabua) compliment the character of Fagin well. I liked the way they created the impression of their being longtime comrades in crime.

The chorus of children holding up their food bowls in the play Oliver! The play opened March 4 and runs through March 9 at the International Conference Center in Majuro. Photo: Chewy Lin.
The chorus of children holding up their food bowls in the play Oliver! The play opened March 4 and runs through March 9 at the International Conference Center in Majuro. Photo: Chewy Lin.

I believe one of the most challenging roles in the play is the character of Nancy (Chantelle Rogers-Niedenthal and Haruka Sato) not only because of the conflict that grows between her love for her nasty man, Bill Sikes, and the motherly affection that she gains over time for Oliver, but also because of their musically demanding solos. Both women worked so hard over the course of rehearsals to meet these challenges.

Mr Bumble is played masterfully by Ratakin Zebedy who has a remarkable stage presence for such a young person. He demands that the audience pay attention to him, he speaks his lines with great force, an essential element for this important character. The Widow Corney, (Heleina Bill and Lillia Jack) role has been cast perfectly with the gruff Mr Bumble and makes for some of the funniest scenes of the play.

The actor that I have enjoyed watching develop over the course of these last two performances is Jayce Jorban in the role of Brownlow, the hero of the story. It takes a great amount of talent for a teenager to play the role of a much older character. In the beginning, when everyone was just learning their lines, Jayce looked like a teenager saying an old man’s lines. Now, especially after Tuesday’s performance, he magically appears as a mature, wise and caring old man. His transformation has been astounding, which is what these plays do for many of these students: These productions provide our youth with memories that will last a lifetime and creates for many of them a form of courage — that most times was not there before — that will forever help them cope with a rapidly changing modern world.

Rounding out the fabulous cast are Daniel Lobwij and Jamal Latior, who play Mr Sowerberry, the charming Siana Jetnil who plays Bet, Etrik Leban who plays Mrs. Sowerberry and sings wonderfully, Rosene Motlak in the role of Charlotte who provides one of the funniest scenes as she charms Carmelo (Kabua Noah) with a piece of bacon, and the two Old Sally’s played by Finau Toduadua and Lauren Edwards. I love it when they get dragged off-stage after they die because as soon as they get behind the set, they start to laugh hysterically, which causes all of us back there to crack-up too.

Then there is the Governor played by the wry Samuel Smith: when he comes onto the stage he is already so serious he hardly has to act, which makes him fun to watch.

The ensemble of children in the play has been a lot of fun for all of us to work with. I swear that if we could figure out how to tap into the endless energy of Ommakai Heine-Diaz we could power the entire earth for a century.

I want to mention some extremely important people who operate solely behind the scenes of the play. I have enjoyed immensely the professionalism shown by veteran Hollywood actor Stephen Morgan, who co-directed the play, his wife Carol Ann Smith, who along with Apo Leo painted those amazing stage sets, and Bonny Taggart, who to me is always the most entertaining part of the production as she has the job of worrying about virtually everything from “where are the damn apples” to “who ate the beef jerky that we were going to use for bacon?” to the clothes people are wearing. The masterful Dan John Fox did as well with the music as I have ever seen in one of these productions and was a total joy to work with, and Sumreet Sandhu produced a beautiful program the likes of which we have never seen until now. Many thanks to Ben Duester for the awesome lighting job, and of course, our own Tony Wase, the RMI Sound Guru. Kommol also to Mona Strauss, Nica Wase and the KIO Club for doing makeup and trouble-shooting the many local issues that surround a production like this.

Lastly, it was just so nice to have Professor Garrod and his genius back in the Marshall Islands again after a four-year hiatus due to the pandemic, so I will end with this plea: Please, sir, could we have some more?

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