Jewish day school kids try a twist on Oliver

Visitors to Jasmine Rossi-Devries’ Lafayette home might think something strange is going on there. Lately, the 11-year-old often walks around bent like an old man and speaking in a Cockney accent.

That’s because Jasmine plays the irascible pickpocket Fagin in an upcoming production of “Oliver,” and she’s just trying to get into character. It’s the first big show presented by the Contra Costa Jewish Day School’s drama department, and the cast — made up entirely of 6th and 7th graders — considers itself deliriously excited about it.

“Oliver” plays at Temple Isaiah on May 4 and May 7.

“It will be a fabulous show,” says Berkeley resident Milo Coleman Conroy, 12, who stars as the title character. Based on the Dickens classic “Oliver Twist,” it’s the tale of an orphan boy taken in by Fagin and his den of young thieves in London’s East End.

“Oliver is not afraid to say what he thinks,” notes Milo, “but he’s sort of lost growing up without a mother. I see the Artful Dodger more as a brother and Fagin more as a father.”

In this case, perhaps that should be sister and mother. For the Contra Costa Jewish Day School production, girls will play Fagin and the Artful Dodger.

“I got the part because I really wanted it,” says Danyal Ovadia, 12, of Pleasant Hill, who plays the Artful Dodger. “I worked hard on my audition.”

The same goes for Jasmine Rossi-Devries, who won the role of Fagin, beard and all. “When I saw the movie, Fagin was my favorite part,” she says. “He’s complex, and it’s cool to think what he’s thinking. You can really go deep into it.”

Director Kathy Goldie says the students themselves voted for “Oliver” as the show they most wanted to do (“Annie” came in second). The combined cast and crew tops 70 students, from kindergartners to 7th graders.

“I treated it as though they were auditioning for community theater,” she says. “They had to fill out applications, sing eight bars from the show and memorize a small monologue.”

The 1963 Lionel Bart musical is famous for songs like “Where is Love,” “I’d Do Anything,” “As Long as He Needs Me” and “Consider Yourself.” The 1968 film version won a best picture Oscar, while the Dickens novel remains a revered work of literature.

Yet there is a dark side to “Oliver Twist” besides its seedy depiction of 19th century London. Fagin is a Jew, and has often been viewed as an unflattering, even anti-Semitic, caricature. The student actors at Contra Costa Jewish Day School were taught that history as they began rehearsals.

“Originally it was meant to be that way,” says Milo, “but Dickens tried to make it less anti-Semitic. We don’t portray Fagin as Jewish. In our script you wouldn’t know.”

“He has a bunch of different sides to him,” adds Jasmine. “One side is ‘Don’t touch my money,’ and the other side, he’s basically a father to the boys. He kind of raised a lot of them.”

If the production minimizes any Jewish angle, the kids in the show certainly don’t. Danyal is a native Israeli who moved to California with her family four years ago.

“I’m very into my religion and very proud of it,” she says. “We do Shabbat every Friday and we go to Chabad in Walnut Creek for High Holy Days.” Adds Milo, “My Jewish upbringing is very important.”

Some of the cast members have acted before. Milo has appeared in the chorus for productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Oliver,” and he’s a veteran of Cal Shakes and Julia Morgan theater camps for kids. Danyal has acted in mock musicals like “Peter Nonstick Pan” and “Not Very Secret Garden.”

But now they and their castmates would do anything to make “Oliver” the first smash hit for Contra Costa Jewish Day School.

“As a cast we’re really good,” says Danyal. “Everyone knows each other well, knows what we’re able to do.”

Contra Costa Jewish Day School’s production of “Oliver” plays 7 p.m. Thursday, May 4, and 4 p.m. Sunday, May 7, at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. Tickets: $10. Information: (925) 284-8288.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.