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More Than 200 Young Hopefuls Line Up for Chance to Star in Oliver!

One young actress sings "Food, Glorious Food" at the Oliver! audition at Paper Mill Playhouse. Photo by Madeline Orton.

At 2 a.m. Saturday, a line begins to form outside of Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Around 6:30 a.m., the line starts to grow and by 9 a.m. more than 200 young actors are ready and waiting for their shot to star in the theater’s upcoming production of Oliver!

“Ideally, we’d love to find somebody right here in our own backyard,” Oliver! Director and Paper Mill Playhouse Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee says of their search for young actors to play the role of Oliver and his understudy.

For the performers waiting to be seen by a panel consisting of Hoebee, Associate Artistic Director Patrick Parker and Casting Associate Andrew Femenella of the well-known Telsey + Company casting agency, this audition means the opportunity to be considered for the titular role of the lovable orphan who falls in with Fagin’s gang of pickpockets, as well as for several roles of children in Oliver’s orphanage.

“We bring the kids in in groups of 30, and then sing them all, and then we make a cut, and then we bring them back to dance,” explains Hoebee of the day’s schedule.

Saturday is not the end of the audition process, however. Of the actors who make both cuts, those being considered for the role of Oliver will be asked to sing “Where is Love,” one of the character’s more challenging songs from the show. From that pool of talent, a select few will be asked to travel to New York City for another callback to read scenes from the musical.

“The material is challenging. It’s not easy to sing. It’s very range-y,” says Parker of the high level of talent needed to fill the role. “They need to perfect an English accent…they need to dance as well.”

Just as important as talent, is something maybe harder to come by in young actors. “Focus,” says Hoebee. “That is the number one key — to make sure that a kid can stand on stage and have energy, and be focused, and be in that moment.”

Child actors audition for the Paper Mill Playhouse performance of Oliver! Photo by Madeline Orton.

Though for actors like 12-year-old Matthew from Short Hills, focus doesn’t seem to be an issue. “I tried out last year for Sound of Music [at Paper Mill] and I didn’t get a callback, but I worked and progressed this year, and it feels really good to get a callback,” he says. “I got a new voice coach, so I’ve been working with him, [and] I’ve done more dancing over the year.”

Hunter Kovacs of Maplewood is another contender. Carrying himself with the poise of someone twice his age, he shares his professional experience thus far. “I’ve been a working actor for the past five years,” he says. “I’ve been doing voice-overs, … commercials and last year was my first professional show at Sound of Music [with Paper Mill]. Hopefully this will be my second.”

His mother, Nancy Kovacs, is encouraging of his pursuits and sees him as able to handle the challenges that come along with the life of an actor. “I think Hunter has a great attitude,” she says. “He goes in there, he does his best. If he gets the part, that’s fantastic, and if he doesn’t get the part, he says, ‘OK, we’ll go for it next time.’”

On the subject of nerves, Nancy asks her son, “What do you do with your nerves?” “I stuff them in my socks,” he replies proudly.

Many of those auditioning are not quite as calm. For budding artists, an audition at a major regional theater like Paper Mill Playhouse means there is a lot at stake — the pay and prestige of a professional gig and, if the actor cast as Oliver is not a member of Actors Equity Association, the opportunity to join the union and have access to a wider pool of auditions.

Despite the palpable nervousness in the audition room, there are many smiling faces happy for the opportunity to show off their talent, which, according to Telsey + Company’s Femenella, is the best thing they can be. “A kid who’s really having fun, really confident, is always someone who you respond to,” he says. “They walk in the room and they make you smile because you know that they’re having a great time.”

The cast for Oliver! will be announced in the weeks to come, and performances begin Nov. 21 at Paper Mill Playhouse.