What: “Oliver!” by Lionel Bart

When: Opens May 10 and performs 7 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 19

Where: Summit High School, 2855 NW Clearwater Drive, Bend

Cost: $15, $10 students 18 and under; available in advance at tickettails.com

Contact: beatchildrenstheatre.org or 541-419-5558

Director Gracie Conant went a unique direction when casting the title role of “Oliver!” the Tony and Academy award-winning musical by Lionel Bart. Songs such as “Food Glorious Food,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “Oom-Pah-Pah” and the plot adapted from Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” are time-tested and famous, but for this show, Conant went with a stage newcomer.

Emrys Strople, 12, will play Oliver, the hungry orphan whose adventures include dining on workhouse gruel, a brief apprenticeship to an undertaker and membership in a gang of pick pockets. He’ll make his stage debut on May 10, when the spring production from BEAT Children’s Theatre opens at Summit High School in Bend, where it runs for two consecutive weekends.

This was not stunt casting: She had no idea that Emrys had never been in a stage show before.

“I didn’t know until after we cast him,” Conant said. “He’s super-gifted, super-talented … (a) triple-threat kid. He takes direction second to almost no kid I’ve ever worked with. … After we cast him, they were like, ‘You know this is his first show, right?’ I was like, ‘Nope.’”

Learning so did not concern her a bit.

“It didn’t,” she said. “He gave a really awesome impression from the very beginning. … He was super attentive and asking questions and being super focused. Right from auditions, he was taking directions super well.”

It’s not altogether rare, Conant said, to discover a multi-threat talent. However, it’s vanishingly rare to find someone so inexperienced who can do it all — sing, dance and act — with so much stage time across two acts.

“It’s a weird show in that most of the leads are either in the first half or the second half,” Conant said. “They don’t carry through the whole show. They don’t have as much stage time as the leads in some other shows, but Oliver is on the stage the whole time. It’s a heavy, heavy role. It’s unique in that … we haven’t had any worries or concerns with him being focused and carry the role.”

If she has trouble remembering that Emrys is new to musical theater, in a sense, he’s there to remind her.

“I told him the other day that I have to step back sometimes and remind myself that this is his first time, because I’ll just say things, and he’s like, ‘What does that mean?’” whenever he hears, say, an unfamiliar stage term, she said.

Of course, there are the other 47 kids in the show. The performers range in age from 10 to 18, and are for the most part stage veterans — albeit young and highly energetic stage veterans.

“It’s a lot sometimes,” Conant said. “They really like each other. We’ve got a pretty big group of kids who have already done a lot of shows together — more than usual, I think. So they just really love to chat with each other and socialize. “

With no real-life Mr. Bumbles, Widow Corneys or Fagins — some of the ne’er-do-wells Oliver meets along the way — it’s up to Conant to keep this gang under control.

On the whole, “They’re wonderful,” she said. “They work super hard.”

“Oliver!” features a live band and a set co-designed by Conant and builder Gary Loddo.

Like many of the kids under her direction, Conant, 20, came up with BEAT herself, and is cutting her teeth as a director. Last season, she co-directed “Charlotte’s Web” with BEAT executive director Bree Beal. “Oliver!” marks Conant’s first time directing a musical, Beal said.

“I can just tell you from my perspective that Gracie is just an absolutely lovely director. You hope to find a director who isn’t just good at directing people, but who will draw a wonderful performance out of these kids, and that’s what Gracie does so well,” Beal said. “I don’t know what’s coming in her future, but it’s been so much fun to watch her do this, because she is just very natural working with young people and drawing a wonderful performance out of them.”

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