Borough actors consider themselves at home on stage

Members of the children's chorus watch the action during a production of "Oliver!" at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City. Photo courtesy Adam Jason Photography
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When Lenny Banovez was asked to direct the Secret Theatre’s recent production of “Oliver!” he said no thanks.

But once the theater dangled the concept of a steampunk version in front of Banovez, he jumped at the gig.

“I thought, let’s make it darker,” Banovez said. “It’s not a kids’ musical. It’s a musical with kids.”

And for the most part, those kids in Banovez’s version are from Queens.

The musical, which just wrapped up its run at the Long Island City venue, included three sets of five young actors, who took turns in the spotlight as members of Fagin’s gang and orphans in the boys’ workhouse.

“I thought it would be fun and a good learning experience,” Jadie Tome, 9, said. “It was. It made me want to learn more about the show.”

Paideia School third-grader Julia Mechner also thought performing in “Oliver!” would provide some fun.

“My mom got the e-mail (about the show) and I thought it would be cool to be in the show,” Julia said.

Like a lot of the young performers in the show, Julia studies voice with Oliver Sohngen at the Long Island City Academy of Music, located next to the theater. Sohngen noticed the posters for the show’s auditions and pushed for his students to try out.

“They all ended up auditioning,” Sohngen said. “I only needed two rehearsals to get them vocally ready.”

And during the four scenes in which the younger set appears, there is plenty of singing.

The show, which is a musical version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” opens in the boys’ workhouse where the orphans belt out “Food, Glorious Food” to counteract the reality of their meal of gruel.

For Queens resident Elizabeth Hellman, 13, it’s her favorite song in the show.

“It’s when all their wishes come together for one big musical number,” Elizabeth said.

It also provided some unintentional humor from 9-year-old Nora Yoo. As part of the choreography, Nora repeatedly grabbed a bowl and banged it on the table. But during one performance she had not realized her own strength.

“I accidently knocked a bowl over,” Nora, a fourth-grader at PS 122, said. “I almost hit Oliver (actress Amanda Dupuy) in the head.”

Even though there were plenty of non-scripted funny moments, the young actors remained professional throughout the show.

Manhattan resident Layla Blatt said it was tough to keep a straight face listening to the other actors.

“It was hard not to laugh when everybody was talking with an accent,” Layla said.

Other funny moments occurred when props failed to operate properly. During the “I’d Do Anything” number when one of Fagin’s gang members was supposed to twirl an umbrella to represent a carriage wheel, she couldn’t get the thing to open.

There were also plenty of missed cues.

At one point Queens resident Noah Ballinger almost performed a solo as part of the group number.

“I started to sing the wrong verse,” Noah said.

But for Banovez, none of that really seemed to matter.

“To be honest, the kids were quite good,” Banovez said.

Updated 12:32 am, July 10, 2018
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