Non-Equity tours are often wrongly criticized for a less than professional level of performance, as if only Equity actors can succeed on stage. I've often found this particular accusation to be untrue (the recent Oklahoma! tour is one example). However, and unfortunately, the current touring production of Oliver! suffers greatly from an overall mediocre level of performance. The production, adapted from Cameron Mackintosh's successful London Palladium production, is gorgeous in many ways: sets (Adrian Vaux), costumes (Anthony Ward), and the dynamic choreography and musical staging by Matthew Bourne (adapted by Geoffrey Garratt) - not to mention the beautiful and clever songs by Lionel Bart ("Food, Glorious Food," "Where is Love?," "Consider Yourself," "As Long as He Needs Me" are but a few) and the colorful characters from the classic Dickens story. There are so many gourmet ingredients in that pot of soup, but the overall result is disappointing due to less-than-stellar performances.
The musical version of Oliver! began in 1960 at the New Theatre in London. During that 2,618-performance run, the show opened on Broadway and ran for 774 performances and has since gone on to be presented in many other countries, on multiple tours and in countless regional productions. A film, the Best Picture winner of 1968, sealed the recognition factor for many who were ready for a nostalgic revisit when Mackintosh's production, directed by Sam Mendes, opened in London and ran for over three years.
Oliver is one boy's story of the sad and dangerous life of many poor children who lived in early 19th century England, before the enactment of child labor laws. Children in the workhouses were treated like slaves, or perhaps criminals is a better word, though it was acceptable in the eyes of most of the citizens of that society. Oliver (Ryan Tutton) escapes this life and ventures into yet another dangerous life - that of a street thief. Though violence surrounds him, this life offers a false sense of community, specifically from the opportunistic friendship of Fagin (Mark McCracken) - the adult gang leader - and the other boys, including the thief all the boys emulate, the Artful Dodger (Colin Bates). Proving to be a less-than-successful pickpocket, Oliver eventually and fortuitously lands in the home of Mr. Brownlow (Peter Buckley), who miraculously senses a familial connection with the boy. Though several seedy characters try to prevent it, Oliver finds a happy ending.
With impressive composure for a 9-year-old, Ryan Tutton is angelic-looking, and his voice is tonally appropriate, though he struggles to stay on key in his solo numbers. An exact match in size with Tutton, Andrew Blau is five years older and more experienced. Bates' Artful Dodger has unbounded energy, dancing in a springy fashion as if made of elastic. He sings well and has abundant personality. Both boys, and the large ensemble of other boys and girls, are not untalented, but they do not have the polish and accomplishment needed for this show. They rush their lyrics in group songs and perform dance movements in a highly concentrated manner, as if they are still learning the choreography (Parker Slaybaugh as Charlie is an exception - he shows a very natural and confident style of dance).
Always a crowd favorite, the character of Fagin is played by the tall and lanky Mark McCracken in a most casual way. He delivers some nice moments, and sings the part well, but the pace of the show slows terribly when he has a monologue. When Fagin lovingly goes through the box of stolen treasure that will support him in his old age, McCracken launches into a one-on-one conversation with the audience, full of puns that generate groans and anachronistic comments. This interlude is unnecessary and has a dulling effect on the show.
Supporting performances by Renata Renee (Nancy) and Shane R. Tanner (Bill Sikes) are uneven and add little in energy and cohesiveness. The adult ensemble provides very nice support and help to make the "Who Will Buy?" production number a highlight.
Oliver! continues at the Benedum Center through February 6. For performance and ticket information, call (412) 456-6666 or visit www.pgharts.org.