nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
May 6, 2011
Oliver! by Lionel Bart (book, music and lyrics) has an innate problem that presents a conundrum to directors: how do you reconcile the relatively dark book, based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, with the often light-hearted music and saccharinely sentimental lyrics? It is undoubtedly tempting to think of this as a children’s show, especially with all the young people called for in the cast, and all the singing about “Food Glorious Food,” but this isn’t about lemon drops and chocolates, it is about gruel and food scraps and abject poverty.
In sum, an orphan boy, Oliver, enrages the boss of a workhouse where he lives and is sold as an indentured slave to an undertaker. He escapes, only to land in the clutches of Fagin, a possible pedophile with predilections to pilfering. Nancy, a tart with a heart of gold befriends him, but she can't do much for him as she herself is a battered lover of a renowned criminal, Bill Sykes. Ultimately, a "twist" of fate uncovers Oliver's rightful lineage; but things end up badly for the others, including murder, with one bad one slinking off to live another day. (A complete synopsis can be found here: http://www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com/shows_o/oliver.htm.)
No, this doesn’t seem like a story for kids—at least, not a Mary Poppins dancing chimney sweeps kind of story. No, the underlying business here is serious; the lyrics have subtext; the silver clouds have leaden linings. Oliver! is not a musical that can be given a surface treatment and succeed. It needs nuance and depth in direction and performances. The current Gallery Players version, under Executive Director Neal J. Freeman’s direction, only succeeds in patches.
The multi-level set by Cory Rodriguez sets an appropriately bleak scene, evoking London’s streets, rooftops, ale houses, and other locales. Though we may not really need all the cobblestones painted on the floor, they are a nice added touch—the enormity of all the detailed scene painting is not lost on this reviewer. Tracy Lynn Wertheimer lights the show effectively, setting appropriate moods and smartly utilizing a spotlight as needed. Meagan Q. Dudley costumes the roughly two score characters well. Music director/pianist Kevin Lawson leads his ensemble of violin, cello, and percussion and conducts the cast of 28 with excellent pace, letting the score breathe only as necessary.
Freeman’s staging and the choreography by Josie Bray, however, seem only to work in fits and starts, succeeding now and then but leaving one to conjecture that rehearsal time constraints must have prevented them from fully fleshing out the play. Still, it’s maddeningly frustrating to see a well thought out opening number and then later on achingly static stand-there-and-just-sing numbers.
The cast is uneven in interpretation and abilities, but the leading actors all bring some expertise to the table. River Alexander as Oliver and Yakov Klugman as Artful Dodger are both engaging young performers. Stacie Bono is a standout as Nancy—you can tell in her interpretations of “It’s a Fine Life” and “As Long as He Needs Me” that the actor understands her subtext and the character sees the irony in the lyrics. Also, Greg Horton as Mr. Bumble and Leah Jennings as Widow Corney are particularly wonderful—in their duet “I Shall Scream” they squeeze out lots of comic nuance and double entendres without losing the underlying bite of their situation. Possibly too nuanced is Dominic Cuskern, whose honest and subtle portrayal of Fagin strips away the darkness of soul in favor of a lightness of intellect. Yet his interpretation is all of a piece and invites individual audience discernment. Michael Padgett as Bill Sykes, however, appears to be playing at his role instead of getting at the psychological underpinnings; he really needs to relax into his role and stop trying so hard. He is not alone in this overplaying, as much of the acting from the rest of the company has an overwrought, over-earnest quality. Some general directorial admonitions to do less would work wonders.
I wish I could say I enjoyed the production more than I did. Oliver! is rarely seen nowadays, 50 years after its beginnings. In the post-Sweeney Todd era, it’s nice to see an earlier treatment of a dark subject using the musical theatre format. Gallery Players is a theatrical institution out in Park Slope with a fine reputation, yet for me they missed the mark with this one.