Oliver! By Lionel Bart, based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Not for me the ‘appy life..."
Laura Helm as Nancy; photo: provided
Here’s a family musical that begins with a neglected woman collapsing in the road in front of a "workhouse" in 1840's rural England as she gives birth to a bastard son, and later on brings the heroine, a prostitute with a permanent John who is a murderous cutthroat and thief, to her on-stage death bludgeoned by the boyfriend who is later killed by an angry mob after he abducts the titular hero for the second time and finally ends its scripted scenes with a child-molesting crime-ring head surviving the inevitable police harassment that always follows such publicly tragic goings-on. At least this time around there are some hit parade tunes and some fun dances to engage an audience and keep the show family friendly.
There are, after all, lots of kids in the show. This should encourage other kids and families of kids to attend. Opening night at the Mac-Haydn, therefore, must have been something of a disappointment for the house was less than half full. Sadly for those not attending, they missed some wonderful performances by a talented group of players who almost made this merely tolerable musical into something worthwhile.
Oliver! is missing a few things, but mainly it is missing the complexity that is the hallmark of Dickens’ best writing making this, as it always has been, a difficult show for any Dickens fan to really enjoy. We’re left to wonder why Sykes takes such an interest in the little boy. We’re left to wonder if Nancy can survive another London winter with her skirt hitched up into her belt. We’re left to wonder if Brownlow can ever truly identify Oliver as a long lost relative and also why we’re never let in on why this rich man’s daughter had a child out of wedlock in the first place and how circumstances could possibly bring him together with that grandchild. We don’t have to wonder why Oliver is 13 years old this time around. . .it’s hard to find a truly talented eight year old anymore.
In fact this is a production that just makes you wonder.
Musically it requires a richness to hide its simplicity and that is never quite achieved with the synthesizer keyboard system at the Mac-Haydn. Josh Smith and Andrew Kreigh do the best they can at their keyboards but it is never really enough. Technically it requires fluidity to avoid the long set change pauses that this theater could not help to provide considering the elaborate, bulky and heavy set pieces designed by Erin Kiernan, the set designer who gave great looks but with an impractical styling that sometimes took over a minute to exchange for the next set. Kevin Gleason did some nice effects with his lighting but his basic assumption that all time is the right time gave no chance for viewers to distingush when and where events were occurring.
With his excellent costumes Jimm Halliday truly defines the period of the show and his choices for each individual character feels right, although sometims a choice helps the actors and director decide on the look of a scene. A second costume for Nancy would have been helpful in capitalizing on her emotional growth.
Even without costume aid, Laura Helm does a very nice job in that role. Her singing voice is large and strong and well placed and her scene work gave us a very fascinating character. Sometimes her enunciation could have been better and sometimes, big belter that she is, even she was fighting with the amplified music.
That problem didn’t seem to come into play for Gabe Belyeu’s Fagin. The villainous old man, the seemingly dirty old man, that is Fagin has always been played for comedy and Belyeu’s performance falls into that category as well except that he also manages to remove any pathos from the final scene in this slightly cut version of the show. With the aid of his director, John Saunders, there is a subtle exchange of focus here and Belyeu’s Fagin becomes the intentional hero of the show, inspiringly shifting our attention away from Oliver. Belyeu’s Fagin is rather wonderful and less subtly a kick in the face for the Jews in the audience - me among them. In his hands, and wonderful singing voice, you almost want there to be a sequel to this show, one called "Fagin! - The Musical."
Quinto Ott, whose return to this stage has been anticipated, disappoints as Bill Sykes. His presence is overwhelmingly menacing, but his singing voice has been twisted into a dark, raspy parody of itself. This loss is consequential. I have heard non-singing Sykes, and operatic Sykes and lyric Sykes in the past. Ott’s truly fine voice might have leant a strength to the character that could reveal why Nancy remains faithful to him, in spite of his evil nature. What is left in his portrayal of the man is the menace - well done but without a flip side.
Meg Dooley and Derrick Jacques do nicely with their song as the funereal Sowerberrys.
Ben Patten slows the reality level of the show with his weak performance as Mr. Brownlow. George Franklin is a nice Oliver, and presumably is about thirteen years old requiring the change of the character’s age to compensate for his height. Jill Christine is the oldest Bet I’ve seen and she is fine. Kevin Kelly and Lauren French are entertaining, even in the abbreviated duet they share.
Joey LaBrasca is a perfectly wonderful Artful Dodger. His performance, like those of the Fagin and the Nancy, offers a realistic glimpse into the world of Dickens and the human nature of people in their situations.
The street-sellers in the second act offered a thrilling earful through Lionel Bart’s transcription of actual calls in the Who Will Buy? number. They are Elyse Langley, Jill Christine, Leanne Smith and Rasheem Ford.
John Saunders has woven all of this together extremely well. With Bryan Knowlton’s busy choreography providing the sense of crowded London streets Saunders has clearly concentrated on the characters themselves and their reality on the stage. He has worked well with the children - who could be louder - and with the adults. With the possible exception of the choice of a voice for Sykes, the director has succeeded in bringing to vivid life the world of Oliver Twist who, to quote the subtitle of a favorite novel, is not the hero of his own story and whose happy ending is never made quite clear. Saunders has given Chatham audiences a rare glimpse into the psychology of a man who would create a world of his own, if he could, and who will survive against all odds. I guess that does make this a family musical.
Quinto Ott as Sykes; photo: provided
Gabe Belyeu as Fagin; photo: provided
Joey LaBrasca as Dodger; photo: provided
Oliver! plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, NY through June 17. For information and tickets call 518-392-9292.