Jane Staab, one of the founders of Wheelock Family Theatre in 1981, plays Fagin in its production of the musical “Oliver!”
Jane Staab is stepping into a male role — sort of — as Fagin, adult ringleader of the boy thieves in the musical “Oliver!” at Wheelock Family Theatre.
“It popped into my head almost as a joke. We were talking about doing ‘Oliver!’ and I said, oh, and I’ll play Fagin,” recalls Staab, the Wheelock’s general manager.
It was the only meaty role that seemed right for her, she says. “There are so many wonderful plays, classics especially, that have fabulous roles for men, and the women’s roles are secondary and often not as exciting,” says Staab. “I think a lot of actresses sit around and think, oh boy, I’d love to play that role.”
Nontraditional casting is nothing new at the Wheelock, where “Oliver!” runs through Feb. 24. Staab says the plan began to take shape when costume designer Charles Baldwin asked if she was going to play Fagin as a man or a woman. She said as a woman, then decided that she should be in men’s clothing.
But this wasn’t just going to be a “pants role,” with an actress playing a male character, or even a gender change to a character written as male, like her earlier performances as Prospera in “The Tempest.” She would play Fagin as a woman passing as a man.
“This is what historically happened so frequently, and it’s only really now coming to light how many women dressed as men to survive in a society that really rejected women in earning roles,” Staab says. “You either became a prostitute or a maid or you starved to death. And there were many intelligent women who thought, hey, if I can pass as a man, I can survive.”
The musical isn’t quite as dark as its source, Charles Dickens’s novel “Oliver Twist,” but it’s dark enough. Oliver is an orphan who escapes a cruel workhouse only to fall in among the band of thieves led by Fagin and finds his own life at risk from the brutal criminal Bill Sikes.
“The more you look at the script, the more you see how nurturing Fagin is with his kids and also how much he hates violence,” Staab says. “It just fit in so many ways that it became more and more exciting to do it this way.”
She’s put a lot of thought into the part. She notes it’s been revealed in recent years that there were many women who passed as men to fight in the Civil War. And there have been a few well-known instances, like jazz musician Billy Tipton, whose true gender wasn’t discovered until his death. The woman-passing-as-man story was also at the center of Glenn Close’s 2011 film “Albert Nobbs.”
Audiences, however, will see the Wheelock’s Fagin as a man, as do the characters.
“It isn’t until the final moment of the play that it will be revealed — and some people may not even get it — that in fact,” Staab says, slipping into the shoes of her character, “I have been playing a man for my whole life, probably since I was a kid and began stealing on the streets. I probably decided to do it as a boy and save myself from rape.”
So there’s no obvious wink to the audience and no huge unveiling, unless you keep your eyes on her at the end. But Staab hopes it will start some conversation.
To director Susan Kosoff, the idea enriches the musical.
“I think of Fagin as the most complex character in the piece, and I think this helps explain some of the complexity of it,” she says.
Kosoff and Staab first met almost 50 years ago at Harwich Junior Theatre on Cape Cod, and founded Wheelock together with two others back in 1981. “We’ve collaborated on writing shows together, we’ve lived together, we’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together. I’ve directed her many, many times,” Kosoff says.
Kosoff retired from her role as the theater’s producer last year, and also retired from teaching theater and education at Wheelock College. She helped plan this season last spring, including picking “Oliver!” — but was reluctant to get in the way of her successor, Wendy Lement, beyond that.
“I generally direct dramas. I’m not as keen usually to direct musicals, although I certainly have directed musicals,” Kosoff says. “And Jane said, ‘What if I play Fagin?’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ ”
And how is it for Kosoff, seeing her friend of nearly half a century done up as the scruffy old Fagin?
“It’s a little weird, actually,” she says, laughing.