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Austin Levine

Andrew Timmons and Austin Levine in a scene from 'Oliver!'

By Heidi Sutton

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts closes out its 15th season with a production of the award-winning musical “Oliver!” With book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, the show, based on Charles Dickens’ second novel, “Oliver Twist,” features some of the most unforgettable songs and vivid characters to ever hit the stage.

The story centers around a 9-year-old English orphan, Oliver, who has been raised in a workhouse. After disobeying the rules, the boy is sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. Oliver escapes shortly after and travels to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger and becomes a member of a gang of pickpockets led by the criminal Fagin and aided by Nancy and the abusive villain Bill Sikes. Is Oliver destined for a life of crime or will his fortune change?

You can’t go wrong with a show like “Oliver!” during the holidays and the 40-plus cast at the SPAC, skillfully directed by Jordan Hue with musical direction by Melissa Coyle, presents a production that is fresh and exciting, serving up a fine afternoon at the theater.

While the entire cast does a tremendous job, especially the children, special mention must be made of Austin Levine who stars as Oliver, the young orphan with a pure heart. For the moment he speaks, “Please sir, I want some more,” Levine has the audience rooting for him to find a home and happiness.

Andrew Timmins nails it as the spirited Artful Dodger, top hat and all, and Brian Gill is quite terrifying as Bill Sikes. Ashley Nicastro is perfect in the role of his girlfriend Nancy, a victim of domestic abuse who ultimately meets a bitter end. Doug Vandewinckel reprises his role as Mr. Bumble, a role that fits him like a glove. Although her role is small, Taylor Duff as Bet stands out in the crowd, especially during “It’s a Fine Life.” Last, but certainly not least, Nick Masson plays Fagin with oily charm, performing “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” like an old pro from the days of vaudeville.

Of course, it is the wonderful melodies that are the heart of the show. From the hilarious numbers “I Shall Scream” and “That’s Your Funeral” to the poignant “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Where Is Love” and “Reviewing the Situation” to the big song and dance numbers we all know and love — “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything” and “Oom-Pah-Pah” — all are performed with boundless energy and beautifully choreographed by Jessica Gill.

Costumes by Ronald R. Green III are brilliant, from the drab brown outfits for the orphans, to the refined suits and dresses for the aristocrats to the seedy outfits of Fagin and his crew; and the set, designed by Timothy Golebiewski, beautifully showcases a cross section of Victorian society.

Exiting the SPAC last Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t help but think how lucky we are to have so many wonderful community theaters on Long Island and how special live theater truly is. Consider yourself invited.

The Smithtown Center for the Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown will present “Oliver!” through Jan. 21. Running time is 2½ hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $25 adults, $15 ages 12 and under. Please note: Show contains some violence and implied adult themes.

Season 16 opens with “Shakespeare in Love” from Feb. 3 to March 4, “Mamma Mia” from March 24 to April 29 and “Dreamgirls” from May 12 to June 17. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

All photos by Danielle Nigro

Austin Levine and Max Venezia are starring in James and the Giant Peach. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Before “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” before “Matilda” and even before “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Roald Dahl wrote the classic children’s novel, “James and the Giant Peach.”

The story follows the adventures of James Henry Trotter, an orphan who lives with his two mean aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Life for him is sad and lonely — until he meets a grasshopper, spider, earthworm, centipede and a ladybug aboard a giant, magical peach!

Now, over 50 years later, the story comes to life as a musical at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport on Oct. 3. Nearly 30 children auditioned for the role of James and ultimately two young actors, Max Venezia and Austin Levine, were chosen to share the role. Adult actors will play roles in the supporting cast.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these amazing kids in between rehearsals at the Engeman’s Performing Arts Center across the street from the theater.

Max, whose favorite subject is math, is in the sixth grade at South Ocean Middle School in Patchogue. His path to become an actor began when he found out his friend Ava was taking voice lessons; so he started taking them too. His vocal coach later encouraged him to try out for a role in “Seussical” at Kids for Kids Productions in Oakdale. “That’s what my first show was and I’ve just loved it ever since,” he said.

At the young age of 11, Max already has an impressive resumé that includes roles in “The Music Man,” ”Gypsy” and as Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” “This will be my 22nd show,” said Max, whose most recent role was as part of Fagin’s Gang in “Oliver!” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

Austin, who also loves math, is a sixth-grader at Commack Middle School. In second grade, he landed a role in “Annie” at the Suffolk Y in Commack and was immediately hooked. Since then, the 11-year-old has been in over 10 shows including “Mary Poppins,” “The Full Monty” and “Peter Pan” at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale.

Austin decided to audition for the role of James because “I had never done something at the Engeman and I wanted to because its nice to go try out, [to] go to different theaters.”

When preparing for the role, Max read “James and the Giant Peach” for the first time. “When I saw it, at my age, I thought this is creepy,” he said. Added Austin sheepishly, “I have not read the book — I should though.”

Austin’s favorite scene in the show includes the song “Shake It Up,” where James accidently spills a magic potion setting off a series of peculiar events.

Both Max and Austin said they enjoy working with the adult cast, which includes James D. Schultz, Alyson Clancy, Suzanne Mason, Michael Verre, Kate Keating, Samantha Carroll, Danny Meglio and Jacqueline Hughes.

“I love them. They are so fun to work with,” said Max, adding that he learns a lot from them and takes notes.

Austin agreed. “Because sometimes it’s hard to work with little kids because they are not mature [enough]. It’s a great learning experience,” he said.

Austin, who said he enjoys working with Max the most, usually does not get nervous during a show. “When it’s an audience of, like, 1,000 people and I can’t see them, I’m fine with that. It’s just when I can see them in person, it’s a little weird.”

Max’s favorite show on Broadway is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” while Austin said he favors “Mary Poppins” because “it is such a great story.”

Rehearsal has been every day after school, usually from 4 to 7 p.m. Max, who hopes to become “an actor and if not that, a teacher, probably either science or math,” does his homework in the car to Northport and on the ride home and sometimes stays up late to finish. Austin, who lives closer, likes to come home from school, relax, go to rehearsal, come home, eat, do his homework for two hours, go to sleep “and do the same thing over again the next day,” he laughed.

Both say their parents have been wonderfully supportive.

Director Jennifer C. Tully said the two boys were chosen because of “their amazing ability at such a young age to capture the sweetness and spunk of James.”

“Both [Max and Austin] are such talented young performers onstage and such genuinely good kids offstage. While both of them have put their own stamps on the role, they both exude the heart and joy that drives this beautiful production,” said James D. Schultz, who plays the role of the Grasshopper.

“I’m blown away by how hard they have worked and their very mature ability to create a rich and layered character,” added Tully. “It has been a pleasure!”

Come see Max and Austin and the entire cast of “James and the Giant Peach” at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, from Oct. 3 to Nov. 8.  Performances are on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

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