For a gleeful, whimsical, happy-as-the-sunshine youngster such as 8-year-old Elizabeth Alderfer, portraying sadness presents her toughest challenge on the stage.

“Sometimes I just go around the house skipping,” she said, stopping to pantomime a bit for evidence of her normal, everyday demeanor.

The child plays the sometimes-forlorn lead character — yes, a girl playing a boy — in Mill Race Theatre Company’s musical, “Oliver!” at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St. in Columbus.

Of course, it helps that heart-wrenching song solos such as “Where Is Love?” actually do trigger her emotion.

“Now that is sad,” Alderfer said. “That does make me cry, almost the whole, entire time.”

The 150-member cast and crew includes a group of nearly 60 orphans amid the story of a youngster escaping a horrific British orphanage to join a band of pickpockets.

“I think it’s nice to allow kids to play parts that we never actually ever would want them to be,” director Julie Hult said. “We, of course, would hope our children don’t end up having to eat gruel in some awful, parochial workhouse, and then wind up with some vile old man, learning how to steal for a living.

“But the kids have a good time pretending.”

Eight-year-old Ayla Glick detailed her pretense quite simply at a recent rehearsal.

“I have to look really, really sad — like I want and need a lot of stuff,” Glick said. “And I have to be (physically) dirty.”

Glick is among several people in the show — Hult and Alderfer also readily come to mind — with several family members also involved. That fits Mill Race’s long-running family-style summer theme.

Many of the elementary-school-aged cast members boast substantial drama experience.

For instance, 11-year-old Molly Hotek, playing the role of Bet, a former pickpocket, has been in seven productions either outright or via local drama camps. She was drawn to the production by one aspect in particular.

“I just think all of the songs are really pretty,” Hotek said.

Amid the band of pickpockets is local acting and directing veteran John Johnson, playing the evil Fagin, teaching children that a thief need not lead to grief.

“I’ve wanted to do this part since my junior year or senior year of high school,” Johnson said, adding that Columbus North High School considered presenting the musical in the late 1980s. “It’s definitely one of the great roles. The actor doesn’t have to be a really great singer, so my more-than-passable singing voice suffices. And there’s comedy — and some serious stuff, so there’s a nice mixture for me.”

Lest you think the show demands a lot of acting from its youngest stars, listen to 8-year-old Maddox Hult, one of the orphans. She was asked if she possibly could have been convincingly cast as one of the pickpockets. She quickly understood what she was being asked.

“Oh,” she responded. “I’ve stolen from my sister before.”

Another helping of entertainment

What: Mill Race Theatre Company’s presentation of the classic musical, “Oliver!” based on the Charles Dickens’ novel, “Oliver Twist.”

Plot: The story of an starving orphan bold enough to ask for more food after a day in a British work house. He then flees from the orphanage and joins a gang of pickpockets.

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St. in Columbus.

Tickets: Available online at http://millraceplayers.seatyourself.biz/ and also at the door.

Principal cast: Oliver (Elizabeth Alderfer); Fagin (John Johnson); Dodger (Zane Glick); Bill Sikes (Benjamin Seiwert); Nancy (Emily Nolting); Bet (Molly Hotek); Mr. Bumble (Mark Owens). Julie Hult is director. Chanda Welsh is producer. Daniel Padilla is musical director.

Information: Facebook page at Oliver! A Community Musical.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.