Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
For better or worse (but almost certainly better), the only things in this production that actually suggest a futuristic dystopia are the costumes (designed by Christina Bullard), and even those feel more charmingly timeless than bleak future. What we get instead is a fairly straightforward production of Lionel Bart's excellent musical adaptation with a top-notch cast and a few serious production errors. Fortunately, the good outweighs the bad and this Oliver! is well worth your watch and wallet.
The good: Lionel Bart's score is as wonderful as ever. Favorites like "Food, Glorious Food," "It's a Fine Life," "Oom-Pah-Pah," and "Reviewing the Situation" are all performed without the aid of amplification. There some technical issues created by the absence of microphones (more on that later), but it's wonderful to really hear the voices, and the natural sound is appropriate to the gritty material.
The ensemble is as good as the material they are working with. Benjamin Snyder (at the performance I attended, but he alternates with Lyam David Kilker) is utterly endearing as Oliver, with the skill to pull off the demanding vocals. Fagin, the man in charge of London's juvenile criminal enterprise, is played by Wallace Acton with a wild-eyed enthusiasm that conveys both joy and malice. Jacob Entenman conveys sprightly energy with a dark edge as the Artful Dodger.
If Entenman is dark edge, then Brock Vickers is malicious savagery, from the collar of his leather trench to the tip of his ebony boots. Vickers imbibes Bill Sikesa fellow thief and associate of Faginwith unapologetic brutality. Sikes' girlfriend and Oliver's eventual savior is Nancy. I have always watched Oliver! wishing that Nancy would wise up and get the hell out of Dodge, but Hanna Gaffney makes it clear that Nancy is a self-deluded victim of domestic violence. Chemistry seems like the wrong word, but the something that Vickers and Gaffney share takes the production to the next level. Gaffney's doleful rendition of "As Long as He Needs Me" is heartrending.
The bad: The musical accompaniment provided by The Mudfog Four. The quartet is solid and the orchestrations are good, but they are located too far downstage. Despite their best efforts, the band frequently drowns out even the strongest singers. Clear soundproof panels or body microphones (I really do like the absence of amplification, but not at the cost of clarity) would solve a problem that distracts throughout the show. Equally distracting are the audience members seated at long tables integrated into the set. They are constantly craning their necks to see the action and jerking their hands back to avoid a crushed thumb. Because so much performance space is devoted to those tables, the action that takes place on the rest of the cross-shaped stage feels weirdly cramped. Burns successfully employed an unusual stage setup during last season's My Fair Lady, but the layout for Oliver! is gimmicky and confusing.
There were a lot of young people at the performance I attended. A mature six years is a reasonable age minimum, but there were younger kids there who seemed to enjoy the performance. Just keep in mind Oliver! contains moments of intense violence and a lot of dark themes.
Oliver! runs through December 23, 2018, at the Quintessence Theatre Group's Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia PA. For tickets visit www.QTGrep.org or call 215-987-4450.