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Landmark Musicals' Oliver! Offers
Adorable Kids and Fine Acting

Also see Paul's review of Oklahoma! and Michelle's review of The Sparrow's Daughter:á A Cuento

Oliver!

There are some musicals that are timeless. Oliver! with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart is one of them. Did you know that it was the first stage adaptation of a Dickens work to be a hit? It's true. It was a hit when it first opened in London in 1960 with a subsequent Broadway opening in 1962 and then a film version in 1968. If those little morsels don't have you uttering "more, please," then consider Landmark Musicals' production, which opened on Friday night at the University of New Mexico's Rodey Theatre. After seeing it, you'll understand why generations of kids and adults have fallen in love with Oliver! in spite of its dark themes, typical to the time period in which the show is set. Who could resist a stage full of adorable children singing like an English boys choir? And this production has lots of them in a variety of roles—from Londoners selling their wares, to slapstick Bobbies, to orphans galore.

I'm always a fan of waiting to see a community theatre production until the second weekend of a typical four-week run. This gives the actors, director and technical crew time to iron out the kinks before a reviewer comes. In this case, I didn't have that luxury since Landmark's Oliver! runs only eight performances. This review is of the opening night performance.

In case you didn't see the show as a child or are having difficulty remembering, here's a brief recap:

Oliver lives in a workhouse with shady overseers and asks for more food in the dining hall. He is sent away to live with a cruel undertaker and his wife where he uncomfortably lives amidst the coffins in the basement. He escapes and takes to the streets hungry and alone. Oliver meets another young waif known as "the Artful Dodger," who befriends him and offers him a place to stay. Dodger and his fellow grafters are all taken care of by the mildly creepy, but secretly vulnerable, Fagin. Oliver is na´ve to the trade, assuming that the boys make handkerchiefs, rather than steal them, in return for room and board. While living with Fagin, Oliver meets and bonds with Nancy, the abused but in-love girlfriend of the dark and violent thief Bill Sykes. Oliver sets out on his first gig to rob the wealthy gentleman Mr. Brownlow and is left alone to take the blame. After being apprehended, Oliver becomes the ward of his mild-mannered victim. Time passes, and upon being sent by Brownlow out into the streets to return some books to a bookstore, Oliver is abducted by Nancy, who was sent by Fagin and Sykes in order to cover up the whereabouts of their den of thieves. It is then that plot really begins to unfold and certain revelations are made. You'll have to see the show to find out what happens next.

One of the treats of this production is watching the children onstage. There is nothing like the enthusiasm and awkwardness of a child firmly striving to find his or her distinct character. The ensemble is full of them and it makes for good fun. After all, this is the essence of community theatre—giving people who want to perform the opportunity to learn the craft by letting them onstage to build their confidence.

The principal children, however, are anything but newbies. Leading the youthful cast in the title role is the sweet and believable Craig Short, who has already racked up some fine credits as a performer in his vast twelve years. His voice is delightful, and his interpretation of "Where is Love" is one of the best numbers in the show. On par with Short is Grady Harrell as the Artful Dodger. Harrell is a natural onstage and has both the vocal and acting chops that forebode a wonderful professional career in the theatre. Production standouts include Hal Simons as Fagin and Ninette Mordaunt as Widow Corney. Simons, a seasoned professional actor and director brings an unmistakable likeability to the role because he understands Fagin's vulnerability and shows it to the audience right away. Mordaunt is just the right amount of silly and bawdy. With every word and note, she brings clarity to her delivery that lets you know she is the character. At first, Maryl McNally as Nancy made me wonder if this was the right vocal role for her, in spite of her strong and scrappy characterization. Her first number, "It's a Fine Life," doesn't show McNally's vocal and acting ability, but when she sings "As Long as He Needs Me" at the beginning of act two, it is clear she has defined her character and made the song her own, which gave me goose bumps. Jeff Pierce as Bill Sykes possesses the perfect amount of creepiness and sex appeal to make one understand why Nancy is so drawn to him. His vocals have both a raspy and seductive quality which proves he was made for this role. Randy Wagner, a talented actor, is a perfect Mr. Bumble. Rounding out the cast is the always delightful Ray Orley who plays Mr. Brownlow. His facility with a British dialect is amazing and he is clearly one of Albuquerque's acting treasures.

Directed by Jonathan Dunski, this Oliver! drags a bit, with ineffective "bits" which aspire to be humorous, but come off contrived because of poor timing. The culprit here could have been opening night, but pacing was definitely an issue throughout. Also, there were missed lighting cues and strange lighting choices that left some of the actors in the dark during crucial scenes. The ever-enthusiastic and fully committed Shirley Roach choreographs this production. She's a performing dynamo who can do anything, but I found the choreography to be subtle if nonexistent during certain musical numbers. After all, those dreary, foggy streets of London town can always use more hoofing! Typical of many shows I have seen in Albuquerque, some of the production numbers seem under-rehearsed and not together. Far from a dancer myself, I understand the reticence of some of the younger performers to fully commit to the choreography, but it proves that more group rehearsal for a show of this size is always better than less. The orchestra under the direction of William W. Williams and H.B. Williams is superb, though I feel that tempos in some of the more upbeat numbers could be faster.

Rosemary Castro-Gallegos did a fantastic job building the period costumes for the show and Myers Godwin's set captures the dark tones of the era while providing an environment aptly functional, allowing it to be believably used as multiple locales.

While not my favorite of the productions I have seen in the Duke City, overall, this Oliver! is an enjoyable show to which parents can feel comfortable taking their children. This is Dickens, folks, so don't expect happy, happy, happy and a dancing purple dinosaur. What you can expect are cute kids and some great performances by local actors obviously doing what they love.

Oliver! continues this week with performances on March 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m.; and matinees on Saturday and Sunday, March 26 and 27 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18-$22. Call 505-453-8844 or go to www.unmtickets.com.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Paul Niemi



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