BWW Preview: New Paradigm Theatre's Updated OLIVER in Bridgeport

Oliver!, the Lionel Bart play and movie based on the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist is being revived by the New Paradigm Theatre with, well, a new twist. Under the helm of Producing Artistic Director/President Kristin Huffman and with help from multi-award winners Scott Bryce and Paul Bogaev, Oliver! is now a show that reflects today's society with a multicultural and multigendered, as well as multigenerational cast.

"It's not that we're updating the material," notes Huffman. It's already there. "Homelessness and hunger were not just issues during Charles Dicken's time, they are happening right in our own backyards" says Huffman, "and we want to highlight this through our artistic work on this show." Huffman and members of her team watched the 1968 movie, and a conversation started when someone asked, "Why were the children homeless?" It's hard for many residents of Connecticut's Gold Coast to fathom the idea of orphans, but Connecticut has, as of this writing, 1,227 children in foster care waiting for permanent homes. Not having money for electronics is one thing, but homeless children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned is another.

The New Paradigm Theatre is producing Oliver! with the goal of raising awareness about this through live entertainment. In addition, she observes, the domestic and global political climate, including Brexit, makes this show even more timely. The show will be at The Warehouse at Fairfield Theatre Company Warehouse, a perfect venue for this show. Sponsors will have their names emblazoned on distressed T-shirts worn by the young cast members. (Makes sense. Orphans usually don't wear designer duds.)

Bryce is directing the show with Bogaev as both music director and actor performing as Fagin. Both are Weston residents. Gina Naomi Baez of Orange is the New Black (fourth season) plays Nancy. Jennifer Beveridge of Watertown is playing the Artful Dodger. She is 17 years old, says Huffman, but she looks as young as 13 and reminds her of a young Jennifer Lawrence. Because the character is basically a young entrepreneur, the gender doesn't matter. That said, Huffman is grateful because "with boys, you worry that their voice will change." The leading role is played by Bridgeport's 11-year-old Ajibola Hakeem ("Keeme") Tajudeen. "He's a star!" enthuses Bogaev, someone to watch who could very well become the next Brian Stokes Mitchell. Keemie is wowing people at the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, which runs the soup kitchen where he and the cast sang and served meals to the homeless. Talk about Method Acting!

This type of collaboration with other nonprofits as well as with corporations has been one of the hallmarks of the New Paradigm Theatre. Huffman has been getting tremendous support for reinventing Oliver!, and not just because of the success of Hamilton and the trend to make the casts of shows resemble real audiences.

Among Huffman's objectives is to get people of all ages engaged in theatre. Even in affluent Fairfield County, a lot of people don't have the money to see professional theatre. The New Paradigm Theatre bridges that gap. With partnerships such as Project Learn and Turn Around Arts Schools, kids can audition and get "the opportunity to work with adult Broadway professionals and local actors onstage. Everyone will be a part of a contemporary movement that ties theater to helping to serve our community in areas such as a soup kitchen, serving the homeless and developing our youths in the arts," says Huffman.

Other local nonprofits that are participating are City Lights (Bridgeport Fine Arts), KEYS (free instrumental lessons for youth) and Fairfield Theatre Company. "This collective impact is the perfect example of how all of the community can work together for a powerful change in the community," says Huffman.

Oliver! will be presented on Saturday, August 20 at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m., and on Sunday, August 21 at 3:00 p.m. Door open an hour early for "Prologue Bazaar" that features local artists, singers, and street performers who will collect money in tip jars to donate to the Bridgeport Council and their work. Part of the admission fee is to bring a healthy, non-perishable food item for the poor. "We want people to leave thinking not, 'What did I just see?' but instead, 'What was I just a part of?' This experiential art will work so well in the FTC Warehouse and will be very high impact for our audiences." says Huffman.

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From This Author Sherry Shameer Cohen