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Déjà vu: ‘Oliver!’ all over again

South Boston News
A photo in the Halifax County High School’s student newspaper, “The Star,” from 1969. Prizery director Chris Jones, then 17, is shown third from left playing the lead role of Oliver. / June 27, 2013
‘Oliver!” at The Prizery is a flashback.

Not to 1830s London where Charles Dickens set his famous story, but to 1969 at what was Halifax County High School (now the middle school).

A decidedly scrawny 17-year-old named Chris Jones played the title role in an ambitious show — a joint production of Halifax County Little Theatre and the high school.

This week, the role is handled by a chubby-cheeked eight-year-old from Danville, and Jones is the silver-haired director of the production being staged at the community arts center. In the theater for the Saturday matinee was Nancy Barden, now a 70-something Clarksville grandmother, who played the role of the winning but ill-fated Nancy (who sings some of the best songs). Barden, a pillar of the Clarksville Community Players, was introduced over the weekend to audience applause, and Jones warned that he was getting misty.

“I think the most shocking thing was when somebody calculated the [number of] years,” he recalls. (It’s been 44).

Barden was then a mother of two elementary-age children who had bit parts: son Dan, now of Buffalo Junction, played a workhouse boy; daughter Holly was in a crowd scene.

The current production is the same play, with Lionel Bart lyrics and music, which premiered on Broadway in 1963, winning a Tony.

That May 1969 production was big for its day — six men made up the set construction committee, 12 women did make-up, and it took five people just to cast the show. “The Star,” the high school student newspaper, ran coverage on the front page.

“I would love to know attendance numbers,” Jones muses.

“It was huge for me,” he says of his first major role. Program notes at the time — and his photo is the largest — tout his experience “in elementary and church plays, high school assemblies” and two plays, including Little Theatre’s first-ever musical the year prior, “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Also in the cast: Jerry Thomas, then First Baptist Church on Main Street’s music director, as evil Bill Sykes (the program advertises that he is “unmarried”); Jimmy Ambrose as the Artful Dodger; Margaret Stanford (Redmayne) as the Widow Carney; Gayle Carden (Huddert) as Bet (“Loves to take solitary walks and think.”); the late Dot Crews directed.

The 15-piece band included the late Kenneth Cranford on bass clarinet and the late Dennis Dawson on trumpet.

What’s interesting is that, in the intervening 44 years, “Oliver!” doesn’t seem to have been produced locally again, until now.

Jones explains: The play has, in fact, grim and seedy overtones despite its optimistic orphans and mischievous pickpockets. Directors sometimes consider it, then dismiss it in favor of more consistent fare.

Across more than four decades, Jones and Barden remember it all vividly.

There is an odd premonitory, pre-destinatory effect that comes from looking through mementos tangential to the performance: The teenage Jones would indeed go on to study music and drama, just as he aspired to; “The Star” editor would earn a Ph.D. in English, Comet baseball standouts Scooter Dunn and Dewey Compton (at the top of the sports pages in that “Star” edition) would grow up to be coaches.

“These things we do impact children’s lives in a big way,” says Jones of the young people in this 2013 production, who range in age from elementary school to 20-something. “They’ll remember this ‘til the day they die.”

Barden, too, knows about passing on a passion: All three of her Mecklenburg County granddaughters have been active on stage.

“Oliver!” runs through Sunday at The Prizery as part of its Summer Theatre Celebration, which combines local amateurs with young professional talent. Two more shows follow. Tickets: (434) 572-8339.

Barden will direct “Play On!” for the Clarksville Community Players in October:

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What a great backstory! smile

Nancy Barden taught us music and arts at Turbeville Elementary (late and lamented) back in the mid-60s and her enthusiasm for the performing arts was boundless even then. Of course I, as a shy kid who to this day prefers to stay out of the limelight, could never muster enough courage to sing or act in front of a crowd.

But it's just as much fun being in the audience and appreciating the folks who CAN bring a story to life on stage.

Many locals have said the Prizery is a waste of time and money and should not receive county funding. To those Philistines, I say the Prizery is a crown jewel in what was until recent years a complete cultural backwater. Support it.


Just read the "remember when" article on OLIVER production noting Chris Jones as the lead and Nancy Barden. The tall teacher who is pictured with Chris is Tony Argo(Fagan) who was the choral director at that time. The instrumental group for the musical was made up of mostly band members from HCHS including my wife Sarah and my sisters-in-law, Sheila Snow Plummer and Patsye Snow Chappell. It was a very successful production and one I remember that required a tremendous amount of practice to pull off. It was great to see your article and how well Chris Jones is doing. He was a fine French horn player in the band and a super supporter of the music program in the school. Kenneth Cranford was my "jack-of-all trades" who played oboe, bass clarinet amongst other instruments I often asked him to play. Those were good times for me at HCHS - forever an enduring part of my memory bank!!

R. Wall

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