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Pals team up for leading roles in ‘Oliver!’ production

A newcomer to the theater scene in Bemidji, Tommy Saxton, left, is shown on stage with his mentor, Berit Dybing, right, in the Bemidji Community Theater/Paul Bunyan Playhouse production of “Oliver!”, which opens next week at the historic Chief Theater. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – When the lights go up on “Oliver” next week at the historic Chief Theater, a story about a orphan boy will be told by family groups who came together for this production because they like the music in the show or enjoy sharing the stage experience.

One young actor, Tommy Saxton, who plays the title role of Oliver, is supported by his father, Robert, brother Louis and sister Charlotte. He also gets mentoring on stage by Berit Dybing, a Bemidji High School freshman and veteran of 14 musicals.

Both Berit, who graduated from Schoolcraft Learning Center last spring, and Tommy Saxton, a seventh-grader at Schoolcraft, point to the hands-on, expeditionary method of teaching as essential to their being able to tackle these roles.

“Tommy is my brother Soren’s friend at Schoolcraft so we know each other well,” said Berit. “Because it’s his first show, I’ve sort of taken Tommy under my wing and because we already know each other, it’s easier to relate to him. I play the Artful Dodger who befriends Oliver and brings him into Fagin’s gang.”

Tommy admitted to never having had a stage experience beyond playing the violin during the Schoolcraft winter and spring concerts. But, he saw the fun his friend had this past summer in the play about Paul Bunyan and decided that it might be something he would also like to do.

Brother Louis offered his opinion as to why Tommy won the role of the title character in show: “I think he did a very good job in the auditions with his monologue; he had been really practicing hard. I’ve been in a lot of plays at school (Louis is a fifth-grader at Schoolcraft) and thought it would be fun to audition with my brother and be in a play with him and my sister.”

Tommy admits to that learning and thinking about the poor treatment of young orphans in England during the mid-19th century makes him sad. Both he and Berit have read about the plight of those young people who, through no fault of their own, were thrown into abject poverty and taken into workhouses to keep them fed and “safe.” They have read some of the Charles Dickens stories, including “A Christmas Carol,” and realize that Dickens sought to expose the terrible living conditions of these children.

Both young actors have had to dig deep to be able to portray their characters sympathetically and yet not be maudlin. Berit admits to really wondering about how she would have been able to survive at that time and in that place when a young child could be sold for 10 pounds.

“In the song, ‘Pick a Pocket or Two,’ it says that if you’re going to get anywhere, you have to learn to be dishonest,” Tommy said. “Some of that was greed but for most it was survival. I relate to the words of ‘Where is Love’ because it’s kind of what a sad orphan would do, I think about that when I sing. I pretend that I am the only one on stage.”

In the play, Tommy as Oliver is sold to his real life father, Robert, who plays Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker. Both Berit and Tommy said the elder Saxton is great to watch on stage and he’s a “fun dad” in real life as well.

Berit added that she cries every time she hears Tommy (Oliver) sing “Where is Love.” But she said the first act is full of songs that are uplifting and sometimes fun like “Food, Glorious Food,” a tune in which Oliver and the orphans in the workhouse sing of the watery gruel they’re fed each day.

When the Dybing family lived in Walker and had a 45-minute commute each way to Schoolcraft, Berit had time to memorize parts and learn the songs. They have since moved to Bemidji and the workload at Bemidji High School is substantial.

“I’m lucky that I can memorize my songs faster than I can memorize the math,” said Berit. “This is a big musical and in it, I play a pivotal part in Oliver’s life. The Artful Dodger is the best part I’ve ever played, he’s clever and interesting and I wonder how I would act if I were in his shoes.”

The young actors spoke about the scenes in the play where the characters appear to be abused by the evil Bill Sykes as played by Mark Fulton.

In tandem, both youngsters said Mark Fulton is a “really brilliant actor so it’s easy to be scared of his character sometimes… In all of the falls that we take everything is safe because we control our own falls. He (Fulton) just motions it and we do it to ourselves so it’s not like he’s actually pushing us.”

And that statement leads to the topic of bonding, not just familial but also with each member of a cast. Berit and Tommy said it’s vital for the entire cast to be able to rely to each other in the way that friends relate to each other every day. That is, they must be able to trust each other and be able to expect that each cast member will be there at the right time and with the right line.

Berit was in two other Bemidji Community Theater/Paul Bunyan Playhouse collaborations: she was in the chorus in “Snow White” and she was the head rat, donning a motorcycle jacket and helmet, in “Pied Piper.”

Berit’s dream is to enter show business and become a successful actor. Tommy said he just wants to give the best possible interpretation of Oliver Twist Bemidji theater goers have ever seen.

Production begins Nov. 9

“Oliver!,” a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ literary classic “Oliver Twist,” will hold performances beginning Nov. 9.

The show, directed by Mary Knox-Johnson with musical direction by Karen Bradley and accompaniment by Wayne Hoff, follows the runaway orphaned boy on his various adventures.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 10, 16 and 17, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Nov. 11 and 18, all at the historic Chief Theater.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for attendees ages 17 and younger. Tickets can be purchased at Iverson Corner Drug, Ken K. Thompson Jewelry and at the box office.

Attendees are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item to receive a $1 ticket price refund.