Forty teen-agers have spent the month of June honing their singing, dancing and acting skills for "Oliver," a musical based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" that premieres at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Directed by Ric Averill, "Oliver" will be Summer Youth Theater's first high school production in the 300-seat auditorium at the new Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.
"When I heard about the new stage, I thought, 'What a blessing that is,'" said Erin Kessler, the show's associate director. "Now they can do a big musical on a beautiful stage."
In addition to practicing their roles, students involved in the show have taken classes about different aspects of theater, including costuming, technical skills, acting and improvisation.
"Students contribute to all aspects of the production," Averill said.
Stephen Moles, a Kansas University freshman who plays Bill Sikes, a drunken burglar, said working with others is part of what makes the theater experience gratifying.
"We all come together to achieve a common goal," he said. "It's a lot of people creating this elaborate illusion."
Moles is one of a handful of students in the production who will attend college in the fall. Most will attend a Lawrence-area high school.
Andrew Bullington, another 18-year-old KU freshman, stars in the show as the pick-pocketing orphan, Oliver. Bullington, who is in his first season with Summer Youth Theater, decided to audition for the show on a whim.
"I heard some of my fellow thespians at Free State (High School) talking about auditions, and I thought, 'Maybe I'll stop by and see what part I get,'" he said.
Bullington said he enjoys his role.
"It's kind of cool being a part of everything, because in the whole show almost everything has to do with Oliver," he said. "It makes me feel special."
Kessler said all of the students have learned to play their roles well.
"They're all so coachable," she said. "It's like silly putty. You just say, 'Try it this way' or 'Do it this way,' and they do it."
Free State High School junior Jessica Foulke plays Nancy, a criminal who tries to save Oliver from corruption. Foulke said participating in shows like "Oliver" with Summer Youth Theater gives students a forum for self-expression.
"I'm not an artist or a writer, so I do this," Foulke said.
Kessler said the students who participate in Summer Youth Theater are there because they want to participate.
"I like 'Oliver' because it gives a lot of students the chance to play a character closer to their own age," Kessler said. "Also, there is so much music in this musical. ... The kids learn (different) things from being in 'Oliver.'"