Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist is hardly a story which lends itself to a sprightly musical. An orphan boy forced to slave in a workhouse until he gets sold to an undertaker, and who then runs away to join a band of thieves apprenticed to the crafty and cunning Fagin. It has poverty and child abuse and crime and murder. Not the typical stuff of musical theatre. And yet Lionel Bart’s adaptation has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time.
The elements that make this show work are the endearing children in the cast, strong principal characters, and upbeat musical numbers that keep the show moving along at a steady clip.
Unfortunately, there is nothing sprightly about Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of Oliver!, which opened this weekend. The tempos are slow and the show, at nearly 3 hours, drags terribly. However, despite tempo problems, Director/Choreographer Jan Isaacson has created a good looking, imaginatively staged, creatively choreographed production.
The children’s chorus, which opens the show, is small, but for the most part well disciplined, showing a surprising number of good voices for a group so young. “Food, Glorious Food” was a testament to the amount of hard work that the children put in to get the dance numbers right.
Nine year old Ed Bianchi in the title role looks the perfect Oliver. He has a wonderful stage presence and the perfect look of an abandoned waif. He was hampered in Act 2 by being put in a bed on the upper level of the set so that his body was not visible to a good portion of the audience, and his voice was not able to project over the blankets that covered him, but when blocked appropriately he was a delight.
Steve Isaacson was restrained by a cervical collar, but it did nothing to hamper his performance. Except for lacking any attempt at a British accent (which most of the rest of the cast managed to carry off very well), Isaacson’s Fagin was a delightful mix of evil and whimsy, struggling with some long-forgotten principles and trying to decide between his principles and his inherent greed.
The talented Colin Sphar brings a cocky assurance to the role of the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s right hand boy. He is a good actor who moves well on stage and has a strong singing voice.
Equally impressive were Brent Null’s Mr. Bumble and Lexie DeRock’s Widow Corney. Both had strong clear voices and played off each other very well.
Others in the cast included Tim O’Laughlin in a Mr. Sowerberry, a characterization which was almost more “wolfman” than “undertaker,” Sarah Null as Mrs. Sowerberry, Helen Spangler as Nancy, Megan Houpt as Bet, Tommy Callahan as Bill Sikes (not “Sykes” as spelled in the program--this reviewer is sensitive to the proper spelling!), Ben Bruening in the dual roles of Noah and Mr. Brownlow and Noel Bruening as Old Sally.
Act II’s “Who Will Buy” singers -- Savannah Scott, Christa Garnett, Tim O’Laughlin, and Brian McCann -- were exceptionally strong.
Mark Allen has designed a two-level set which functions well as an orphanage, the “Three Cripples” public house, Fagin’s hideout, or Mr. Brownlow’s mansion with the hanging a a few simple pieces and placement or tables. The use of a fog machine at two points of the show seems a bit out of place. While the intent was obviously designed to create the sense of foggy London, the noise and nozzle of the hose were distracting.
There were twelve instruments listed for the off-stage orchestra, under the musical direction of Steve Isaacon (no conductor is listed in the program), though the sound would make one question whether all 12 instruments were playing at the same performance.
Oliver! is a good family show which children and parents alike will enjoy. Its shortcomings are few and are more than compensated for by its strengths.