CENTERVILLE — Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is an icon, a classic, and a staple in English literature. Its brilliant 1960 stage adaptation, Oliver! is as much an icon of musical theatre. With the book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, it may be best remembered by the 1968 screen adaptation. Its the story of orphaned Oliver Twist, who is sold into servitude after having the audacity to ask for more food from his workhouse master. The boy escapes and ends up in a gang of adolescent London thieves wrangled by the benevolent scoundrel, Fagin.
The musical is filled with heart-warming songs like “Food Glorious Food,” “Where Is Love,” “Consider Yourself,” “Who Will Buy,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” and so many more including the audience favorite, “Reviewing the Situation.” It’s a perfect choice for Centerpoint Legacy Theatre—a well-supported and thriving community theatre in Centerville—because its music and story are so familiar, and (in this production) it’s filled with kids wonderful, energetic and talented kids.
Director Liz Christensen has her hands full with this production, with cast members having a wide range of talent and experience. Because of that varied range the show is, over all, rather uneven, with parts sagging (primarily the non-musical scenes in Act II) and some exciting and convincing (primarily the musical numbers). At times the direction also seemed “tentative,” for instance, Oliver’s fight with Noah Claypole in the funeral parlor, the end of Act I, as well as the final chase scene when the crowd wants to lynch Bill Sikes. Each of these scenes, as well as others, are paced too fast to be believable. Of course, no one wants an actor to get hurt, but fight choreography and chase secnes must be convincing to the audience. Additionally, the first act ended so abruptly that when the lights came up for intermission, I thought it was a technical mistake. The tempo of the entire show was rather relentless, without ebbs and flows, never allowing a moment between characters to land so that the audience has a chance to emotionally hook onto the characters.
But Christensen also has a handful of excellent talent with which to work, and she worked them well. A shining standout is Scott Butler as Fagin. With a strong voice and agile body, Butler was convincing as the kind-hearted villain. His rendition of “Reviewing the Situation” was wonderful to watch. Butler and the “boys” were great in “Pick a Pocket or Two.” On the other hand, when he first appeared, his appearance seemed incomplete and out of place. Butler wore old age make-up, but his hair was a shiny and healthy brown. It didn’t make any sense. Then the next time he appeared, he was wearing a hat. That completed the transformation, but it was an unfortunate mistake that detracted from an excellent first impression.
Brandon Smith as The Artful Dodger is a find. He is poised and comfortable on stage, delightful and convincing to watch as he expertly sings “Consider Yourself.” My only criticism would be—and this is a technical note—that during his high-energy scenes, he lower his vocal pitch and slow down just a bit because I couldn’t understand a word he said. This point brings me to the Cockney accents. For the most part they were relatively good, but the thing about accents is that clarity and understanding should never be sacrificed for an accents’ authenticity. There were many times when the actors were working so hard on being true to the accent that they were unintelligible.
JT O’Reilly was a sweet Oliver Twist, singing “Where is Love” effectively. Emily Wells as Nancy has a strong voice which suited the ballad, “As Long as He Needs Me” perfectly. However, the relentless pacing of the show didn’t allow me to really get to know Nancy and see her developing a maternal fondness for Oliver. Without that, I wondered why, at the end, she is willing to risk everything to save the boy. Matthew Price played the put-upon Mr. Bumble convincingly and his voice fit “Boy For Sale,” which he sang well. Stann Babb was an oily and creepy Mr. Sowerberry and Lisa Smith a belligerent Mrs. Sowerberry.
But let’s talk about the kids for a moment. What a bunch of dirty-faced delights! These kids were having so much fun up there, their joy was infectious. They were engaged and in character. They sang with everything they had, and I could understand every word. I commend music director Derek Myler for drilling his singers to be crisp and articulate. It was great to listen to these children’s voices.
Like the directing, the choreography by Sarah Martin was also uneven. The opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” was inventive and fun to watch. But as the show went on, the choreography in some of the numbers, especially “Consider Yourself,” seemed simplistic and routine. However, community theatre choreography is extremely difficult, because most of the time choreographers are working with non-dancers, so they must choreograph to the skill-level of the cast members. It can be a dilemma: too simple and the choreography looks boring; too complex, and the actors can’t pull it off. I also have to mention the set by designer Scott Van Dyke. It was inventive, versatile and maneuvered and morphed into the various London locations. However, the set changes were interminable and need to be tightened. Hopefully as the show continues its run, that will happen.
CenterPoint Legacy Theatre is a great community theatre because it does exactly what community theatre is supposed to do: give lots of members of the community a chance to perform and experience the magic of theatre. You won’t get Broadway, but you will have fun at Oliver!