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'Oliver' will leave you begging, 'more, please'

UApresents brings the classic musical, 'Oliver!,' based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" to Centennial Hall. "Bleak!", based on Dickens' mammoth novel "Bleak House," did not do as well.
By Lauren Hillery
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 7, 2004
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You'll probably never hear anyone say we need more homeless beggars in Tucson, but that's just what's coming. But don't dial your realtor just yet - these beggars are the entertaining kind, the orphans in the musical comedy "Oliver!" Mark McCracken, who plays Fagin, the thief who teaches Oliver how to steal, discusses theater pranks and onstage camaraderie.

Wildcat: Can you give a brief synopsis of "Oliver!"?

McCracken: It's based on the Charles Dickens novel "Oliver Twist." It's a story of a boy named Oliver who goes from a bleak dark life in the workhouse to being rescued in the end. He follows him from the workhouse where he is orphaned, because his mom died, to being rescued by his grandfather in the end. And in between you run into all sorts of shady and gullible characters who lead him the better life in the end.

Wildcat: Why is this an important story to tell?

McCracken: I think, relevance-wise, Charles Dickens was writing a book about a lot of the social conditions at the time between the upper class and the lower class. I think it's relevant today because it deals with differences between the haves and have-nots, and in a broader sense of the story, Oliver represents the innocence that's inside of everybody. And I think why this particular show has been successful for almost 40 years is because everyone can identify with that innocence and that childlike character going from the dark and the bad to the good to always being hopeful and being optimistic and always looking for better things and fortunately having them delivered after having struggled for so long. Wow. I have to go take a nap now; I can't believe I just said that answer.

Wildcat: What drew you to this play?

McCracken: Needing a job. I needed a job and so I saw the ad, and I auditioned, and they gave it to me, and I jumped up and down and screamed.

Wildcat: Why do you think college students should see it?

McCracken: Because it will give them lots of things to talk about later. No, I don't know. Again I think it has a lot of relevance to what's going on in today's world between the rich and the poor. Also it has great music, because Lionel Bart wrote a lot of popular music and he wrote these songs that everyone will think is pretty great. A lot of people don't realize when they hear these songs that they're from this particular show. They recognize the songs and they go, "Oh, I didn't know this show." Entertainment-wise, I think it hits people on a lot of levels. It's a very dark show, it's not like "Les Miserables," it's not like a bunch of happy people dancing around singing about corn. It's about people struggling and suffering and trying to make the best of things and trying to figure things out for themselves. And being in college, you can relate to something like that. Maintaining and being optimistic in Oliver's case is something that everyone can hook into. Maybe for college students if you work hard and maintain a certain level of optimism you might end up being adopted by a rich grandfather.

Wildcat: How closely related are the book and the play?

McCracken: They're very closely related. I know that Lionel Bart when he adapted the book, he put some of the characters together. He also edited larger portions of the book. The book has two or three story lines that I know of that all intertwine, and he eliminated at least one of them to make the story much easier to follow to make the show move along quicker and be much easier to understand.

Wildcat: Is it difficult to play the bad guy?

McCracken: Umm, no. I'm not the baddest guy in the show. I'm actually one of the more complicated characters because I don't like being the bad guy necessarily, but I know that I have to because it's a means of surviving and I teach the boys how to steal for me, so I don't have to do all the hard work. So I'm kind of a smart, funny bad guy. So I'm likable, but I do things that are reprehensible as well.

Wildcat: What is it like having so many kids in a show?

McCracken: Well it's a lot of fun, because I think I'm a kid at heart and I have children so it's great playing with these guys, because being away from home, I kind of have my own little family here. We all misbehave with each other and play a lot of practical jokes on each other, and it's a lot of fun. They're very, very talented kids and multitalented. They're also very hard-working. They have to go to school during the day, they have to do their homework on the afternoon, they have to do the show at night, somewhere in there they have to find time to sleep and play. It's tough and I admire them very much for what they do. They make my job look much easier, because they make me look good on stage, because they work very hard and they make it look very smooth and easy.

Wildcat: So what kinds of practical jokes do you play?

McCracken: Being on the road for 10, 12 months, you have to break up the monotony. We interact a lot and I know I'm not the only one. Nothing dangerous, nothing illegal, just basically fun and inside jokes. There was the water gun fight backstage down in the dressing rooms a couple weeks ago. Someone brought in some water guns, which was a big mistake and we had water gun fights I had to end. When the kids were on stage I filled their socks with shaving cream. So they come back and they want to get me back. So then we go back and forth like that. It doesn't really interfere with what we have to do on stage. Sometimes we'll order pizza to each other's rooms, even though those kids didn't order the pizzas. Or they'll do the same thing to us. People making noise on the road outside of other people's bedrooms, or traveling on the bus together. We know each other very well so we know how to get each other's goat. Fortunately it's all in good spirit.

Wildcat: Have you had any mess-ups on stage?

McCracken: There was one time where Bill Sikes's understudy had a problem because he was supposed to kill Nancy with his big stick and he didn't have his big stick so he had to improvise and step on her head. There was one night when I was doing something with the boys and doing a very serious moment and somebody's cell phone went off in the audience so I had to make a comment about that and cracked the boys and the audience up a lot. So that was a lot of fun.

Wildcat: So you guys obviously have good chemistry.

McCracken: Everybody does. Apparently, talking to everybody else who has done tours, and who has done live theater a lot, they say this is a very unique and unusual batch of people. Everyone is extremely close and uniquely compatible. There's a high degree of trust onstage. From the beginning we had a strong sense of professional camaraderie and we trusted each other implicitly. And I think that's only been increased with the months and the miles we've put in together. It's very familial, and you do get to feel very comfortable together.

Wildcat: Do you have any pre-show rituals?

McCracken: I kill a chicken, burn incense, I drink whiskey, I lather myself with whiskey ... no, I have no main ritual. I just come in and have my diet coke and my candy bar.

Wildcat: Why does the name have an exclamation point?

McCracken: I think probably because if it had a question mark people wouldn't come see it. I don't know. Probably because when you see the show that's just how you feel. When you come out, you just want to scream, "Oliver!"

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