If one musical can drive any disconcerted theatregoer crazy, it has to be Oliver!. With its highly infectious tunes that can stay lodged in your head for days on end, Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' enduring 1838 novel about that little orphan boy named Oliver Twist in 19th century London is one of the most popular musicals ever written that doesn't seem to ever go away.
The bad - or good - thing about Oliver! is that it is suitable for everyone, and is a perennial favourite for amateur theatre companies, as well as schools, to perform. And then, of course, there's that Academy Award-winning film version that a lot of toddlers like to play over and over again ad nauseum.
But, you've got to hand it to Lionel Bart for writing a musical that is so damn enjoyable that you'll have trouble hating it. And the new Cameron Mackintosh London Palladium revival production currently in its only North American appearance at The Princess of Wales Theatre is such a theatrical pleasure, that for this theatregoer, it's impossible not to leave the theatre without some sort of uplifting or joyous feeling. (Or skipping and singing "Consider Yourself" like a giddy, little schoolgirl, for that matter.)
Director Sam Mendes, currently represented on Broadway with his revolutionary reinvention of the musical Cabaret, adds his own brand of stark, brooding realism (though not bleak as one would've expected) in this lavishly decorated production of Oliver!, while at the same time, letting the bright and cheery song-and-dance numbers, so nimbly choreographed by Swan Lake's Matthew Bourne, shine through.
If the social issues Charles Dickens was trying to address (most particularly poverty) are not as palpable in Bart's musical, that's because we're more inclined to lean towards the cheerier aspects of Oliver! with all its toe-tapping songs and its irresistible gang of kids (you have to admit that they made a life of petty thievery look pretty attractive). But the sense of claustrophobia, the stench of depression, and the air of fear are magnificently evoked in Anthony Ward's spectacular set of sombre London skylines, subterranean hideouts, and English pubs, while Mendes keeps the audience engaged in the swift staging of the piece.
While the roles of Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sikes are often identified with the film version's stars (Ron Moody, Shani Wallace, and Oliver Reed, for those of you who don't remember), the imported British leads offer fine, if not better, performances. While we all remember Ron Moody's Fagin as being that sly villain, British funny man Russ Abbot is oh-so-lovable that there's barely a glimmer of slyness or evil in his character. He's more funny than recognizably manipulative, and more honest than cunning.
Sonia Swaby as the ill-fated Nancy offers a performance complete with shades of vulnerability and strength, glowing admirably in the second act tear-jerker "As Long As He Needs Me." Steven Hartley as that bleak villain Bill Sikes, is terrifying in his silent first act entrance in which he hands stolen items to Fagin while standing in the shadows. But when he actually steps out of the shadows in the second act, you'll wonder what happened to that dark intimidating, murderous-looking figure. His interpretation of Bill Sikes is hardly terrifying, but more of a drunken wife-beater type.
The Canadian troupe of kids are excellent as the gang of street pickpockets under Fagin's care, with Jake Epstein as the Artful Dodger often stealing the limelight from Russ Abbot, and more often from Mitchell Moffit, a brittle-looking Oliver Twist. There are also some fine comic performances from Lindsey Dawson and Halcro Johnston as the Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble, while Terry Kelly makes a sinisterly humorous Mr. Sowerberry, the funeral parlour owner.
But even if the production's sunny side will be the prevailing recollection in the mind, the darker moments will leave a haunting imprint.
WITH: Russ Abbot (Fagin), Sonia Swaby (Nancy), Steven Hartley (Bill Sikes), Marilyn Cutts (Mrs. Sowerberry), Lindsey Dawson (Widow Corney), Darryl Forbes-Dawson (Mr. Brownlow), Halcro Johnston (Mr. Bumble), Terry Kelly (Mr. Sowerberry/Dr. Grimwig), Pauline Stringer (Mrs. Bedwin), Jake Epstein (The Artful Dodger), Sara Farb (Bet), and Mitchell Moffit (Oliver).
November 2, 1999 - January 15, 2000 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto. Call (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333. Online at http://www.ticketking.com