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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Oliver!: A Community Pre-Holiday Celebration
at Centenary Stage

Also see Bob's review of ... And Then I Wrote a Song About It

Oliver!
Dave Schffler, Colleen Smith Wallnau and Anthony Zas
Oliver!, a musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel "Oliver Twist" by Lionel Bart (book, music and lyrics) has become a musical theatre classic in its own right. Filled to the brim with rousing and enchanting melodies, it is well neigh near to the perfect family musical for the holiday season. Appropriately sanitized and brightened for family audiences, Dickens' dark and somewhat problematic social treatise still retains an unusual degree of grit and substance for a family musical. Audiences of all ages will find themselves drawn into caring about the characters and their situations.

Oliver! debuted in London's West End in 1960. It was brought to Broadway's Imperial Theatre in 1963. Both productions featured Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna) as Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker.

In a major departure from its norm, the Equity Centenary Stage Company is presenting Oliver! as a community extravaganza. Sporting a cast of sixty, Centenary Stage's Oliver! augments its Equity cast members with faculty and staff from Centenary College (many of whom have professional stage, dance and/or music backgrounds), students from the college who are largely theatre majors, community members, and two dozen youngsters from the Young Performers Workshop program of Centenary Stage which draws eager students from Warren County and beyond. While the result can be a bit unwieldy at times, the assembled company rises to the occasion to present a valid and largely delightful Oliver! certain to delight and put a smile on the faces of local audiences, and all but the most curmudgeonly of the rest of us.

Although the young five-piece orchestra members hit all the right notes and are visibly enthusiastic, there is a rigidity in their playing which robs the production of a bit of verve. (In fairness, I should note that a sixth listed musician, the drummer, was not playing at the performance reviewed.) High up on the plus side is that the songs are exceptionally well sung.

Among the production's highlights:

  • Carl Wallnau's extremely strong Fagin. His sweet voice reveals some high notes that I had forgotten were in the score. Wallnau employs a strong Cockney accent with a light overlay of Yiddish inflection which sounds exactly right for Bart's defanged criminal exploiter of orphaned and abandoned urchins.

  • Lea Antolini-Lid's classically trained voice lending great beauty to "As Long As He Needs Me." She brings a joyful enthusiasm to the rollicking "Oom-Pah-Pah." Antolini-Lid plays a bit too clean and posh for the abused Nancy

  • Anthony Zas, a member of the Young Performers Workshop, both dramatically and vocally playing Oliver in a solidly professional manner. In the first scene, seventeen other Workshop members appear as workhouse children singing "Food, Glorious Food." The accuracy and clarity of their voices, their impressive numbers, and their carefully executed patterns of movement delightfully assure the viewer that Oliver! is in safe hands.

  • Dave Scheffler as the beadle, Mr. Bumble, and, particularly, Coleen Smith-Wallnau as the workhouse matron, Widow Corney, are first rate singer/comic actors who hit it out of the park with the comic operetta number, "I Shall Scream."

  • Transcendently beautiful is the performance of "Who Will Buy." It begins with a bit of "Where Is Love?" and blossoms into the beautiful street sellers' cries ("who will buy, my sweet red roses two blooms for a penny"). Each solo voice and note—the housekeeper (Maria Brodeur), Oliver (Anthony Zas), the Rose Seller (Tanya Wheelock), the Knife Grinder (Emilio Tiri), the Strawberry Seller (Christine Mase), and the Song Seller (Stephen Davis)—along with the choral work of others, contribute to the haunting beauty of the piece. A colleague advised me that the street cries are traditional British airs. Still, Bart brilliantly employs them.

Director Michael Blevins has marshaled his forces well, which at times can mean that he is a good traffic cop. I assume that the omitted reprises which usually accompany the curtain calls fell victim to an already much extended rehearsal clock.

Families will be hard pressed to find better holiday entertainment than Oliver!. And with tickets at about eighty bucks for an entire family of four, this rousing large-scale musical extravaganza delivers exceptional value.

Oliver! continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm: Matinees: Wednesday and Sunday 2:30 pm) through December 12, 2010, at Centenary Stage Company (Sitnik Theatre) at the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Avenue, Hackettstown. Box Office: 908-9794297; online: www.centenarystageco.org.

Oliver! Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart; directed by Michael Blevins

Principal Cast
Oliver Twist..............................Anthony Zas
Mr. Bumble...........................Dave Scheffler
Widow Corney...........Coleen Smith-Wallnau
Noah Claypole...............................Leon Hill
Mr. Sowerberry....................Steven Bidwell
Mrs. Sowerberry.............Christine De Frece
Charlotte..........................Amanda Maxfield
Artful Dodger......................Justin Boccitto
Fagin......................................Carl Wallnau
Nancy................................Lea Antolini-Lid
Bet...................................McKenzie Custin
Charles Bates...................Brandon Wiener
Bill Sykes.............................Osborn Focht
Mrs. Bedwin.........................Maria Brodeur
Mr. Brownlow......................Stephen Davis
Dr.Grimwig...........................James Nester


Photo: Pat Lanciano


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- Bob Rendell



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