The musical Oliver, currently playing at the Aronoff Center as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati Series, is billed as "Lionel Bart's Magical Musical." Though this non-Equity national tour is a stunningly designed and well-performed production, the staging somehow lacks the magic its billing promises.
Based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Oliver follows the story of the title character, a young orphan in Victorian England. Oliver is sold after asking for seconds of the meager portion of gruel the boys receive daily at the workhouse. He eventually escapes to London where Fagin, the "caretaker" of a ring of boy thieves, takes the lad in. The young Artful Dodger, who helps to teach the ways of pickpocketing, and Nancy, a local barmaid, befriend Oliver. When the boy is falsely arrested and then housed by a wealthy gentleman, the criminals worry that their game is in jeopardy. The violent thief Bill Sikes has the most to lose, and sets out to ensure Oliver doesn't divulge their secrets.
Oliver debuted in London in 1960 and made its way to Broadway in 1963. Lionel Bart wrote the book, music and lyrics, a triple-threat feat rarely seen today for successful musicals. The score is one of the best of the 1960s, with many now classic songs, with the music being generally stronger than the lyrics. From the opening "Food, Glorious Food", in which the orphans fantasize of eating something besides gruel, and continuing throughout the show, the music is first rate. Whether they are rousing and jaunty group comedy numbers ("Consider Yourself", "You've Got To Pick -A-Pocket Or Two," I'd Do Anything"), witty charm songs ("Reviewing the Situation") or sweet ballads ("Where Is Love?," "As Long As He Needs Me," "Who Will Buy"), the tunes carry the load of the show.
It is always difficult to adapt a large and well-known novel into a musical. The show's book excises some things found in the novel, yet it still seems overly padded in a number of places. There is certainly sufficient comedy, conflict, action and pathos, but if some of the remaining material (especially that of the Mr. Bumble, the Widow Corney, and Mr. Sowerberry) had been trimmed, other central characters and relationships could have been more fully developed. Though the musical includes sixteen children in its cast, parents should carefully consider whether a musical that includes groping, child abuse, murder and the teaching of criminal activity is appropriate for very young children.
This is a large cast of nearly forty performers, and they bring a lot of energy and talent to the stage. As the title character, Ryan Tutton is quite endearing and sings sweetly. Mark McCracken displays fine comic skills and stage presence as Fagin. Reneta Renee Wilson suitably portrays Nancy as a warm-hearted yet beaten down woman, and she shows off an impressive singing voice. Colin Bates is spirited and fun as the Artful Dodger, and Bill Sikes, as performed by Shane R. Tanner, is fittingly menacing. The young performers on stage especially deserve kudos for their professionalism in executing this complex staging of the show.
This tour of Oliver is based on Cameron Mackintosh's 1994 London production directed by Sam Mendes and choreographed by Matthew Bourne. Graham Gill is credited with directing this adaptation. Unfortunately, Mr. Gill is unable to succeed in transferring the obvious talent and energy of the cast into an exciting overall theatrical piece. Too many characters seem cartoonishly one-dimensional, and some scenes (especially the first few) come across as sterile and stale. In addition, some of the performers are employing accents that are too thick, rendering the words and lyrics unintelligible to some audience members.
Goeffrey Garratt is more successful in adapting Mr. Bourne's dances and movement within this tour, and his cast does well in executing the choreography in general. Dominick Amendum leads a fine nine-piece orchestra that is sadly greatly augmented by recorded instruments.
Some of the greatest assets of this tour are the extremely attractive design elements. The fluid and handsome set design by Adrian Vaux skillfully captures Victorian England. Jenny Kagan's wonderful lighting design impresses early on, and the costumes by Anthony Ward are colorful and period appropriate.
Even though this production of Oliver possesses a treat for the ears via strong performances of Lionel Bart's great score, as well as visual delights from the exquisite design and lively cast, the current national tour fails to fully live up to its potential. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 23, 2005.