Also see Scott's review of Jersey Boys
A different approach to a well-known classic musical can sometimes bring forth new appreciation for the material and provide theatrical flair, but can also seem vague if it detracts from the understanding of the basic story. Both are the case with the revisionist staging of the musical Oliver!, currently playing at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio. For those familiar with the show, there is much to enjoy, but newcomers to the tale may be confused at times, despite some great performances, strong design, and splendid choreography.
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 pick pocketing, 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 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 had been trimmed, other central characters and relationships could have been more fully developed. Though the musical centers on a child, and usually includes many children in its cast, parents should carefully consider whether a musical that includes abuse, murder, and the teaching of criminal activity is appropriate for very young children.
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" 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.
This production of is a major rethinking and scaling down of the material. Under Alan Souza's direction and concept, a cast of only ten performers portray the many characters. Even more different is Mr. Souza's method of framing the story. In this version, patrons and staff of an 1830s English tavern are celebrating Christmas and are inspired to act out the story, with "English Music Hall" songs included, of "Oliver Twist," , which has just been published. As a result, the songs that begin each act, "Food, Glorious Food" and "Oom-Pah-Pah," are now no longer songs with the story of Oliver, but rather assigned to the would-be actors before starting or continuing their impromptu performance. Director Souza's approach creates a unique and fresh view of the material, and is lively, fun, and off beat. The "non-actors" overact their lines, often cross-dress, and inhabit all the trappings of amateurs, such as over-the top dramatics and broad line deliveries, to much comic delight. However, quite similar to some of John Doyle's shows, the minimalist approach assumes (and relies on) a familiarity with the source material (either the novel or the musical). One would never have known that Oliver was in an orphanage, for example. The staging likewise fails to clearly convey settings sufficiently, especially the transitions from one locale to another, and the presentation of inter-relationships of many characters is muddled.
The choreography by Broadway vet Spencer Liff is magnificent. The dances and movement are ingenious, athletic and unexpected, and are certainly a highlight of the show. Even with only nine dancers, Mr. Liff still turned "Consider Yourself" into a dance showstopper, incorporating juggling, props, and a wide variety of moves.
Instead of the large cast of nearly forty performers usually associated with Oliver, ten Human Race cast members handle the many roles in the show. Eleven-year-old Blaise Bouschard is the only child in the cast, and sings exquisitely as Oliver, displaying amazing pitch throughout and showing off fine acting chops as well. Joseph Medeiros is one of three CCM grads with Broadway credits in this cast, and he is wonderful as The Artful Dodger. His dancing is breathtaking, and he's also a skilled vocalist and actor. As for the other two CCM grads, Sara Sheperd is a gutsy, earthy and empathetic Nancy, and Nicholas Belton is an appropriately harsh and brutal Bill Sikes, and both sing well. As Fagin, Gary Troy is deliciously devilish and funny as Fagin. Helen Gregory portrays Bet, but also provides spirited Music Hall style piano accompaniment throughout (which is the only instrument accompanying the singers). Also impressing are Adam Lendermon (a hilariously eccentric Mr. Sowerberry), Chris Shea (a moving Mr. Brownlow), Scott Stoney (a lively and funny Mr. Brumble), and Ian Devine (a menacing Noah Claypool). Many of the male ensemble members play small female roles with aplomb and the entire cast does very well with the many dances.
The unit set by David A. Centers is very handsomely rendered, featuring the tavern in wood and brick, but with many nice details and the needed versatility to hint at the different settings of the show. The costumes by Molly Waltz and lighting by John Rensel are both first rate and professional.
If you know and like the musical Oliver!, this production offers much to like. However, if this is your introduction to the story, you might want to see a more traditional staging (or rent the movie). Great performances, dances, and design are wonderful assets, but it doesn't matter if you can't follow the story. Oliver! continues at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton through December 22, 2012. Visit www.humanracetheatre.org for tickets and more information.