Father Bill Debo was hoping to play against type.
He auditioned for the role of Fagan, the shady but affable ringleader of a gang of young pickpockets in Capital City Productions’ interpretation of the musical “Oliver! The Musical.”
“That would be a great character to play,” the priest thought to himself. “You spend your whole life trying to be the good guy, and then you get to be someone like him on stage.”
Not that Fagan’s all bad.
“He has a certain charm about him that attracts the audience to him,” Fr. Debo noted.
The day after the audition, he got a call, offering him the smaller but unquestionably more sympathetic role of Mr. Brownlow, a grandfatherly figure to the play’s young protagonist.
“I’ve finally ‘matured’ in my role!” said Fr. Debo, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Freeburg and Sacred Heart Parish in Rich Fountain.
The lighthearted production, based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, highlights hope and optimism, the bonds of friendship and the individual impulse to respect other people’s humanity even when society does not.
Performances will be Thursdays through Saturdays, Aug. 12-14 and Aug. 19-21 in Jefferson City.
“Come and enjoy a night of the award-winning musical adaptation of the classic Dickens novel as it springs to life with some of the most memorable characters and songs ever to grace the stage!” the event’s promoters stated.
Mr. Brownlow deals mercifully with an unfortunate lad named Oliver and sets out to help him, building up to a moment of intense reflection.
“There’s a scene where (Mr. Brownlow) looks at a locket and kind of stares off into the distance and mumbles his line, oblivious to everything that’s going on around him,” said Fr. Debo.
“It’s one of the tender moments in the play,” he stated.
Fr. Debo had played several theatrical roles at the Showboat Theatre in Hermann during his previous assignment as pastor of St. George Parish in Hermann and Church of the Risen Savior Parish in Rhineland.
He started attending Capital City Productions (CCP) performances when the teachers at Holy Family and Sacred Heart schools gave him season tickets for Christmas his first year as their pastor.
“I was so impressed with the professional quality of the productions — the acting, the singing, everything,” he said.
He was pleased to learn that CCP gives back to the community by helping various causes.
He thought back to the times he got to play the role of Albert in “Bye Bye Birdie,” Cornelius Hackl in “Hello, Dolly!” and a member of the barbershop quartet and several other roles in “Music Man” back in Hermann.
“I started to miss it,” he said.
Several friends encouraged him to try out for a role with CCP, but he didn’t think he had the time.
But then came this Dickens-inspired production.
“I wouldn’t necessary call it a ‘bucket list’ item, but I love anything by Dickens,” he said, especially on account of the 19th-century English writer’s sense of justice and favorable treatment of society’s discarded people at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
“When I heard about this, I thought this may be my last opportunity to be in a Charles Dickens production,” Fr. Debo stated.
He checked his calendar and decided to work the rehearsals into his slower summer schedule and to take vacation time during the production.
“So here I am, stepping into new territory, meeting a lot of new people — great people. It’s been kind of exciting,” he said.
“And I’m still amazed at the level of talent they have to choose from right here in Central Missouri,” he stated.
Behind the scenes
Fr. Debo is impressed at how everyone pitches in to help behinds the scenes, designing and building sets and props and getting the theater ready for the production.
“Everyone works together,” he said.
“Oliver! The Musical” includes a large cast of children. Many of parents stay around to help organize, clean and build sets while the children are rehearsing.
“The other night, a group of us helped paint the backdrops, and we’ll do more of that as we get closer to show time,” he said.
He enjoys that more than being on stage.
“My art background kicks in then,” he noted.
During rehearsals, he gets to visit with cast and crew members of all ages about the community theater and whatever else is on their mind.
“That’s what I enjoy about it,” he said. “Visiting with people and learning their background.”
Another cast member is a minister in the United Church of Christ.
“When he found out I’m a priest, he said, ‘I think we’re in the same line of business,’” Fr. Debo recalled. “So we visited about our various ministries.”
He’s amazed at how many people he talks to have connections to CCP or have taken part in its offerings over in the past 30 years.
“Anywhere you go, when the subject comes up, there’s someone who was in a production maybe five, 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.
He believes it’s good for priests to get away from their day-to-day duties at their parishes and interact with people in a different way.
“I think I’m able to carry on with my daily work even better because this kind of thing rejuvenates me,” he said.
Capital City Productions performances are held at 719 Wicker Lane, off of Missouri Boulevard in Jefferson City.