The Park Players, a community theater group dating back more than 30 years, is presenting “Oliver!” for six performances starting Friday at Fort Lee’s Church of the Good Shepherd.
The play, with script, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, is based on the classic Charles Dickens novel. The Park Players’ version features a cast of 23 people and one dog, according to executive producer Joseph Conklin.
The group started 32 years ago in Union City at The Park Theatre. They’ve since done dinner theater in North Bergen and Fairview and have performed at venues appropriate for specific plays, Conklin said.
For example, the Park Players have performed “Man of La Mancha” at Don Quijote Restaurant in Fairview, “Steel Magnolias” at a beauty parlor on Bergenline Avenue and “Little Shop of Horrors” at a florist shop.
“Oliver!” is the fourth play the group will be performing at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fort Lee, according to Conklin, who said they’ve also done “Godspell,” “Two by Two” and “Nunsensations” there.
“Rev. Allison [Moore] has been absolutely wonderful,” said Conklin, who’s also a Lector in the church. “They’re all, in that church, so supportive of the arts, which is an A-plus wonderful thing. It’s a great venue because it’s that one-on-one. You can break the fourth wall quite easily with that.”
Conklin made the move to producing after serving as chairperson of the Park Players, duties now shared by co-chairs John Fiorenza Conklin, an usher at Good Shepherd, and Judy Espaillat. Joseph Conklin is a retired teacher and drama facilitator from the Union City school system and said the board chose “Oliver!” as its latest production because “every now and then we like to work with kids.”
“We did ‘Oliver!’ years ago, and we decided to bring it here because we’ve done a lot of shows that included kids,” Conklin said. “We’ve done the “Annie” series a couple of times so this time we wanted to utilize the boys, but we also have girl orphans so it works out well.”
He said the children in the group are not all from the same community, but rather from surrounding towns, which provides an opportunity for them to bond with one another in the process of learning about theater.
“They become an ensemble,” Conklin said. “We also do a little bit with the educational background about the show. Charles Dickens is … pretty popular right now with the ‘Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ which is on Broadway right now, and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ a couple of years ago.”
The group started rehearsing for “Oliver!” in early November, and the children have really embraced their roles, according to Conklin.
“Kids are fun, and this particular group of orphans, let me tell you, they really are orphans,” he said. “They just play the part, and they’re so cute.”
Two young actors are playing the title role, Ryan Espaillat of Ridgefield Park, who Conklin said has been a Park Players junior member “since he was a baby,” and Jason Briones of Fairview, who auditioned for the part and will be acting in his first play.
Below is a synopsis provided courtesy of the Park Players:
Young Oliver is an orphan who escapes the cheerless life of the workhouse and takes to the streets of 19th-Century London. He's immediately taken in by a band of street urchins, headed by the villain, Fagin, and his loyal apprentice, The Artful Dodger. Through his education in the fine points of pick-pocketing, Oliver steals away with an unexpected treasure...a home and a family of his own.
The Park Players will present “Oliver!” in Fort Lee at the Church of the Good Shepherd, located at 1576 Palisade Ave., on the following dates:
- Friday, Jan. 11 – 8 p.m.
- Saturday, Jan. 12 – 8 p.m.
- Sunday, Jan. 13 – 5 p.m.
- Friday, Jan. 18 – 8 p.m.
- Saturday, Jan. 19 – 8 p.m.
- Sunday, Jan. 20 – 5 p.m.
Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 for students and seniors and $12 per person for groups of 10 or more. For reservations, call 201-941-6030, or you can buy tickets online. For more information, visit the Park Players’ website.