11-year old Carly Ronning plays the title role in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Oliver! this summer at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Photo by Tim Matheson.
11-year old Carly Ronning plays the title role in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Oliver! this summer at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Always a sure sign of summer in Vancouver, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) is set to unshutter the open-air stage at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl for its annual offering of family-friendly Broadway musicals.

This year, TUTS presents two shows with big heart from opposites sides of the Atlantic. First up is the effervescent Hairspray, with its story of racial tolerance in Baltimore, and the second is Oliver!, the story of the young orphan caught up in a grand adventure through the underbelly of Victorian London.

For Shel Piercy, who will direct the production of Oliver!, the choice of this particular musical was two-fold: to bring younger members back into the company, and to honour one of their own.

“TUTS knew we had to do a show that would bring young kids back into our shows. Not since Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2010 have we had a significant show for kids,” he says. “Plus it felt right as one of our long time board members, Cliff Cox, who probably played Fagen more times than anyone else on this planet, had recently died.”

The tenth show that Piercy will direct for TUTS, Oliver! also plays an important part of his own history with this venerable institution.

“My first year at TUTS was in 1970, where I worked on My Fair Lady and Oliver. It was the first theatre I ever worked in,” he remembers.

More than simply nostalgia though, Piercy points to the unique setting and the theatrical challenges that a venue like Malkin Bowl presents as the reason for his own longevity with the company.

“Stanley Park is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and we are right in the middle of it,” he says. “There is the size of it, and I find that an interesting work-out in presenting our audiences with a unique theatrical experience.”

Shel Piercy returns to Theatre Under the Stars for his 10th production
Shel Piercy returns to Theatre Under the Stars for his 10th production as director of this summer’s production of Oliver!

Set in 1843 London, the exclamatory Oliver! is based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. With its memorable songs that include “Food, Glorious Food”, “I’ll Do Anything” and “Consider Yourself”, the musical is a much lighter version of the Dickens novel.

Emphasizing that lighter tone, Piercy is planning a pre-show experience for audiences that goes well beyond bringing a picnic into the park.

“We’re imagining a village fair in 1843 that will be in operation as you enter the theatre,” he explains. “There will be things to participate in like a Punch & Judy show, foot races, and other entertainment that are all themed around the time period. The show develops out of the fair, and before you know it the show has begun.”

A traditional mix of professional and community players, it feeds into the TUTS mandate as a training ground for pre-professional and amateur actors and technicians.

“We’re blessed to have so many of these actors on the brink of turning professional, coming to us from programs such as Capilano University, and then there are others that may have a different passion in their lives, but didn’t want to give up theatre completely,” he says.

Demonstrating that mix is Piercy’s decision to cast 11-year old Burnaby resident Carly Ronning in the title role, a decision he says was all about finding the right person play this iconic role.

“There were a lot of talented kids that came to audition, but what I loved about Carly is her performance is so honest and clear,” he says. “She didn’t have a ton of experience, but she has such enormous charisma and embodies Oliver perfectly. She is one of those naturally born actors that knew exactly what was needed to portray this young boy.”

Oliver! shares the stage with Hairspray, the effervescent story of racial tolerance in Baltimore
Oliver! shares the stage with Hairspray, the effervescent story of racial tolerance in Baltimore. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Now into its 75th year, for Piercy the TUTS longevity comes from its unique place in Vancouver’s theatrical season.

“For many of our audience this will be the only time they get out to see theatre each year,” he says. “Theatre Under the Stars is a tradition for many as they come back year-after-year. There is something special and unique about it being outdoors, and it becomes a more memorable experience.”

Oliver! and Hairspray play on alternating nights at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park July 10 – August 22. Visit http://tuts.ca for tickets and information.