Also see John's review of The Light in the Piazza
Whenever I think about Oliver!, I can't help but think back to my days as a teenaged apprentice at a summer stock theater. I remember asking the director (who in retrospect seems to me to have been the Roger DeBris of 1960s Milwaukee) if he would do ever do Oliver! at the theater. It was the first new musical I had discovered on my own, and being not much older than the orphans and pickpockets of the story, it had a special resonance. The director shuddered, grimaced and said "Never! All those annoying ... kids!"
Maybe this aversion has been shared by later directors and producers, as I don't recall that I had any opportunities to see a professional, fully staged production of Oliver! until the current tour came to Chicago on January 28th. This production is based on the Cameron Mackintosh London revival of 1994, which was directed by Sam Mendes, choreographed by Matthew Bourne, and starred Jonathan Pryce as Fagin. It sounded like that West End revival had to have been a dream production. I had high hopes for a tour that would bring this classic back to the stage using current production capabilities on the scale of a Les Miz or a Phantom. I became skeptical after learning it was a non-Equity tour. Not having seen one of those animals before, I wasn't sure what to expect. It seemed a little improbable that a cast without union credentials could deliver enough entertainment value to justify a $70.00 top ticket.
If this show deserves that sort of ticket price, it's earned more by the production values than the skill of the performers. As the piece demands, this is a big and handsome production with a cast of 40 and probably over a hundred detailed early 19th century costumes. The sets are quite impressive for a tour with stands of mostly one to two weeks. Costumes and sets for the 1994 revival were designed by Anthony Ward, who has since designed sets and costumes for Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady revivals as well as Mendes' Gypsy with Bernadette Peters. While Ward's costumes are used here, set design for this tour is credited to Adrian Vaux, who seems to draw heavily upon Ward's 1994 designs, using wooden beams and catwalks to create dark spaces for the workhouse and Fagin's thieves' kitchen, and a series of painted backdrops to make bright streetscapes for the London crowd scenes. The set for the closing scene on London Bridge is eerie and especially effective.
As they say, though, nobody goes home humming the scenery and there's no need to do that here. The non-Equity cast all demonstrate solid vocal skills for composer-lyricist Lionel Bart's score of classics like "Consider Yourself," "Where is Love" and "As Long as He Needs Me." Renata Renee' Wilson, a recent college graduate in her first post-collegiate role, is an earthy and winning Nancy, selling her songs with confidence. Justin Pereira, who already has credits as Franklin, Jr. in the Kennedy Center's Merrily We Roll Along and as Les Mis's Gavroche and Music Man's Winthrop in D.C, area productions, is a spunky Oliver. These two should be graduating into Equity ranks before long. Shane Tanner is an imposing Bill Sykes, while Andrew Blau is a pint-size Dodger, impressive in his music-hall-styled "Consider Yourself" and "I'd Do Anything." Some decent laughs are earned by Ken Clement as Mr. Bumble and Gwen Eyster as the Mrs. Corney.
The show really demands a star quality performer as Fagin, though, and Mark McCracken falls short. Surprisingly, given his background in improv groups, he finds few ideas to make the character as funny as it should be. The monologue in which Fagin looks at the treasures he's keeping for his "retirement fund" gets particularly dull. In general, the level of the cast's acting ability is well below their vocal abilities. They have difficulty making natural transitions from speech to song. They get little help in establishing motivation from Bart's book, which too effectively condenses the plot of Dickens' Oliver Twist in "Classics Illustrated" style. Too often, they show a lack of spontaneity, never seeming to hold a note or a pause a second longer than might be expected. The performances frequently feel canned or stale, which is surprising, considering the tour opened just 2-1/2 months ago, in mid-November.
The blame for that must go to director Graham Gill, who seems more a traffic cop, and at least keeps the large cast, pieces of scenery and numerous costume changes all on cue. Nothing in his staging surprises us, though, and his main accomplishment might be to ensure that the curtain never falls after union overtime begins. It's unlikely Sam Mendes would want much attention given to this recreation of his staging from ten years ago, though we might assume the generally less sentimental and less cute treatment of the children is probably a Mendes touch. Matthew Bourne's 1994 choreography has been adapted and given additional dances by Geoffrey Garrett, and he gives the cast some lively and energetic moves.
Cameron Mackintosh got his professional start as assistant stage manager for a British tour of Oliver! and he says the show inspired Alain Boublil to write Les Miserables, which Mackintosh produced. While Oliver!, originally staged in London in 1960, may be the father of the big British musicals of the '70s and '80s, it's also perhaps the last of the great 1950s musicals that produced three or more standards per show. Bart was clearly writing hits that could work outside the show, sometimes too obviously, as in "Where is Love," "As Long as He Needs Me" and "Consider Yourself," but he created some terrific character and comedy songs as well. It's one of the great shows that brought a lot of us into a love of musical theater, and it's good to see it back on stage. The 1994 London production never transferred to Broadway, so maybe there's hope for a full-scale revival in the next decade. Until then, this tour isn't a bad way to introduce a new generation to this wonderful musical.
Oliver! plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through February 8. For ticket and performance information, call (312) 902-1400 or visit broadwayinchicago.com.