That Lionel Barts Oliver! has huge universal appeal and relevancy today is not in question. Bart crafted his iconic musical from the Dickens classic, drawing on themes of love, kindness, desperation and redemption to circumscribe the music.
Though millions have seen this ubiquitously mounted musical on countless stages, millions more will, since the spectacular score 16 memorable songs and a heart-strings pulling story continue its reign as one of Britains most endearing exports.
Our story opens at The Little Theatre of Alexandria with Oliver Twist, played by the adorable and fresh-faced James Woods, as a homeless and penniless orphan wandering the mean streets of 19th-century London town. An orphan longing for a mothers love, he lives amongst the thieves and scallywags patrolling the lawless warrens of the city.
To love Oliver is to have hope, which is well engendered on this stage by a captivating cast of workhouse urchins. These 11 mop-topped orphans are precious to the max. Seeing so many cute children in tatters and newsboy caps swarming the stage and kicking up their heels is utterly irresistible.
Quick! Wheres my runcible spoon? Never mind. Were on meager rations here. In a memorable scene, Gruel-starved boys test the rules when Oliver boldly prevails upon Mr. Bumble for more slop in his bowl in the well-loved tune, Food, Glorious Food.
The young and talented Woods carves out a convincing portrayal of the innocent child, whose life of imposed deception begins when he is tossed out of the workhouse and sold for a pittance to a couple of crafty undertakers, the dour Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry. With approval from the greedy Mr. Bumble, they cast the piteous boy as a mute coffin-follower. In the lively ditty Thats Your Funeral they trumpet their plans to have mourners in all corners, marking the start of poor Olivers downward spiral into crime.
In I Shall Scream, a duet, we enjoy Jeffrey Clarkes roguishly seductive Mr. Bumble who is well matched to Mary Ayala-Bushs come-hither Widow Corney, oozing coyness and feigned elusiveness to his every flirtation.
Soon Oliver meets up with the Artful Dodger, played with swagger and fresh snap by Ben Cherington. He lures the innocent lad into the clutches of the master crook, Fagin, whose hot house of bad boys is a veritable den of iniquity. The smarmy Fagin teaches Oliver to do his dirty work in Pick a Pocket or Two, and theyre off to a riotous life of crime.
The success of this particular production is a tribute to the skill and direction of Roland Gomez, who coaxes crack performances from the large cast. Fine choreography from Heide Zufall manages to put this passel load of moppets through their paces.
All the little pint-sized poppers claimed my heart, but 7-year-old Joseph Machosky, as the smallest orphan of the lot, took cheek and charm to new heights with double time dancing and a fierce energy on the stage.
Only Maureen Rohn in the role of Nancy may have been miscast. Though she is a stunning actress with a pitch-perfect voice who portrays the sweet side of Nancy quite capably, it is the abused and broken Nancy that goes missing. In her ballad of despair, As Long as He Needs Me, we are left without the passion, pride and fury needed to balance out this complex character.
The production features a 12-piece backstage-secreted orchestra and 33 cast members. All the principals perform terrifically, especially Mike Baker Jr. as the nefarious and avaricious Fagin. He brings a sinister dynamic to Reviewing the Situation. And Paul Caffrey, as the misogynistic con artist Bill Sykes, cuts through the London fog with an interpretation of Sykes that drips with Mephistophelean evil.
All in all, this Oliver! deserves kudos as an engaging, energetic and splendiferous production.