Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on Charles Dickens' classic novel, Lionel Bart wrote the music, lyrics and book for the musical, and the show had a hugely successful run in London and a fairly decent one on Broadway in the early 1960s. In 1968 the film version won six Oscars including one for Best Picture. With a string of classic showtunes, the plot of the musical and novel follows young orphan Oliver Twist's journey from his miserable workhouse life to being pulled unwillingly by a young teen boy called The Artful Dodger into a life of crime. Oliver lives and works with a group of juvenile delinquent pickpockets who are led by an older thief, Fagin. But Oliver yearns to find love, and a life in crime doesn't seem to be his lot in life.
The musical is an abbreviated version of the Dickens novel and has several positive aspects as well as some negative ones. On the positive side, Bart's score is a smash, including a neverending stream of superb, rousing songs as well as two excellent ballads. However, the book does a disservice to the character of Oliver, who is off stage for about 1/3 of the show. Even the ending focuses more on Fagin than Oliver. Of course, MET's production can't do anything to remedy those shortcomings, and, fortunately, director Rusty Ferracane has found three gifted actors with clear, strong voices to take on the leads of Oliver, Fagan, and Nancy, the older female member of the gang who serves as a surrogate mother figure for Oliver.
Asher Angel is a complete joy as Oliver. He displays effective sour, sad looks early on when Oliver is at the workhouse, yet, with bright eyes and a big smile, shows the happiness Oliver finds in the new people and the experiences he encounters, even finding something positive within the manipulative Fagin. When Oliver believes he has found a happier living situation in the second act, the look of joy and love on Angel's face is priceless. Angel does well with Oliver's act one ballad "Where is Love?" and contributes nice additions to the many large ensemble songs Oliver takes part in. It's a sweet, winning performance.
As Fagin,David Chorley achieves a nice balance between drama and comedy, which allows the character to not be too menacing or too much of a buffoon. It works well, especially with the many scenes he has with the young boys in his employ. Chorley has a good delivery of Fagin's songs, giving "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" a fun, upbeat, rousing delivery as well as a comical, direct take on Fagin's second act solo "Reviewing the Situation." Sammie Lideen is quite good as Nancy, her full, rich voice getting the nuance beneath the lyrics of Nancy's moving ballad "As Long as He Needs Me," while also achieving a lively comical delivery of the two ensemble songs she leads, "I'd Do Anything," and "It's A Fine Life." And the act two opener "Oom-Pah-Pah" she sings with the ensemble is a knock-out.
As The Artful Dodger, Alex Tuchi is quite good, providing a big dose of charm to the role, fun facial expressions, and a nice voice for his several songs. The cast also includes Rick Williams as Nancy's evil boyfriend Bill, Jeffrey J. Davey as Bumble, Aimee Blau as Nancy's friend Bet, and Barbara McBain as the Widow Corey, and all do good work. Davey and McBain are a gem as the comical couple from the workhouse, with Davey's deep, rich voice simply lovely, especially during "Boy for Sale."
Ferracane has a tough task in directing a show with a large ensemble that includes about a dozen young boys, and, even due to a few shortcomings, he still manages to deliver a serviceable production. On the plus side, Ferracane derives good and even winning performances from many of the leads. He also doesn't overplay the comic or dramatic moments in the plot, letting the moments play out effectively. Mickey and Rhea Courtney's costume designs are superb, with some excellent pieces for the women in the cast. On the negative side, there is a slightly under rehearsed or unprepared ensemble, Noel Irick's choreography is fairly basic, with lots of repetitive motions, and Michelle Thompson and Rachel Smallwood's multi-tiered scenic design is unimaginative. Also, while the use of prerecorded tracks on one hand is good, as they provide lush orchestrations you couldn't get from a small band, at the performance I attended there were two glitches in the tracks, forcing at one point the entire cast to stand motionless on stage for almost ten seconds waiting for the tracks to catch up to the right point. Fortunately, when you have a Tony winning score that has so many well-known and well-loved songs, even these few flaws don't detract too much from the overall result.
Most community theatre productions aren't fortunate enough to have fully fleshed out production values, well rehearsed casts, and huge ensembles. Even with a few of those limitations, the Mesa Encore Theatre's production of the classic musical Oliver! delivers some really nice performances and is, ultimately, a fine production of the well-known and well-loved musical.
Oliver! runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through November 23, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.
Director: Rusty Ferracane
Cast: (in alphabetical order)