OLIVER!Music, Lyrics and Book by Lionel Bart
Plaza Theatre Company
Director –Jay Lewis
Music Director—Tommy Kennedy
Choreography – Stephen Newton
Scenic Designers—Jay Lewis
Lighting Designer—Cameron Barrus
Sound Designer – G. Aaron Siler
Prop Designers—Madison Heaps and Soni Barrus
Specialty Props—Mark and Deb Dandridge
Costume Designer – Tina Barrus
Stage Management—Cessany Carpenter
CAST (at reviewed performance)
The Artful Dodger—William Power
Bill Sikes—Jacob Hanson
Mr. Bumble—Josh Leblo
Widow Corney—Hannah Midkiff
Mr. Brownlow—Bud Gillett
Mr. Sowerberry—JaceSon P. Barrus
Mrs. Sowerberry—Allison Stankey
Noah Claypool-Braedon Carlton
Dr. Grimwig—William Pena
Mrs. Bedwin—Lauren Hanson
Sally—Ruth Ann Warwick
Pauper’s Assistant—Lorelei Lewis
Charlie Bates—Eli Poole
Kids’ Ensemble—Kylie Kimball, Paul Gilchrist, Elise Mendoza, Cooper Kimball, Aria Leblo, Hanna Ward, Iliana Handson
Reviewed Performance: 4/9/2022
Reviewed by Genevieve Croft , Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“Oliver!” has been referenced and parodied in all forms and areas of entertainment. From a recent PetSmart commercial (“I’d Do Anything”), to a humorous audience piece from Friends’ Joey Tribbiani (“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”) and Frasier (When asked to write a theme song for his radio program, Frasier has come up empty-handed. However, colleague Gil Chesterton (KACL’s restaurant critic) offers the following story for Frasier to help him select a song. “My first choice was “Food, Glorious Food” from the show Oliver!” Frasier ironically quips, “That’s a perfect match. Haute cuisine, and a chorus of starving orphans.” Last week (coincidentally), “Oliver!” was even the answer to a Final Jeopardy question (The clue: The Strand Union workhouse which prohibited second helpings of food, inspired the setting for this 1838 novel) answered correctly by yours truly (My theatre arts degree is finally paying off! But I digress…) No matter what the medium, pop culture references abound everywhere. Especially references to Broadway theatre-which is served up right after another. Before my review of Plaza Theatre Company’s production of “Oliver!” allow me to offer up a quick abridgment of Oliver Twist. Consider the following to be your very brief return to high school English class.
Before you potentially roll your eyes at a musical adaptation of a Charles Dickens’ novel…”Oliver!” takes audiences on an unexpectedly fun musical journey of a drab and most depressing time in Victorian England. In the workhouse of Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, a young orphan (Oliver Twist) asks to be fed more gruel than usual (“Please, sir, can I have some more?”). He is then taken and sold to an assortment of motley characters throughout England before winding up in London under the unofficial guardianship of Fagin, (an aging criminal who now trains youngsters to commit petty theft by picking pockets) and the Artful Dodger, the cleverest of Fagin’s pickpockets. “Oliver!” was the first musical adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel to become a stage hit, and has inspired several film adaptations, including a 1968 UK film. If you have never seen any version of “Oliver!” before, I can almost guarantee that you will recognize Oliver’s definitive line, “Please, sir, can I have some more?” early on in Act I.
Director Jay Lewis brought together a tight ensemble cast of youth and veteran actors who worked well together and created a fantastic representation of classic literature on stage. The concept and vision for this production bridged the element of classic literature and modern Broadway musical. The company was so fully charged with energy from the moment the lights went up. The ensemble was so energetic and enthusiastic that audiences might have felt it was the opening weekend (this was the second week of performances). This is very impressive to me. I love seeing an ensemble on stage have as much fun as audiences are having from their seats. Kudos to the “Kid” Ensemble of orphans for setting the bar high and beginning the show with a bang. What a talented group of youth actors. Bravo! From the moment the overture began, the audience was transported back to Victorian Era England. Overall, the staging and conceptualization were fantastic and visually pleasing. It is apparent to me that a lot of time and care went into the vision of this production. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful a theatre-in-the-round can be. I think as audience members, we generally expect and assume “proscenium style” is the way to go with musicals, as it is traditional and what we are used to. Much to the contrary, Plaza Theatre Company always does marvelous staging with their “theatre-in-the-round,” giving each side of the audience their time equally and incorporating every inch of the arena stage. I was instantly pulled into the story with to the opening number of “Food Glorious Food,” which was staged very creatively with a chorus of orphans in unison using various levels, inventive choreography, and a chorus of wonderful, talented voices.
Also serving as the set Designer was Director Lewis. Lewis successfully transformed the theatre-in-the-round into the multiple locations in the story. While the main look never changed, different items were brought on as each location changed to give simple suggestions or ideas for new locations. It was impressive to see how such simple things as a clothesline of pocket fabric, or a small section of London Bridge could be used to suggest such important locations required within the story. Oftentimes, I feel like set designers get lost in the moment when looking to create the backdrop for the action. Sometimes, the mere, simple suggestion of a location is all that is necessary for the setting. Lewis definitely delivered with set design and was truly able to highlight the talent of the performers. I was especially impressed with how quickly set pieces moved on and off allowing each transition to flow directly into the scene. The scenic designs allowed the story to move quickly from one event to the next. It was a rather quick two-hour musical on Saturday afternoon. The passion and the spirit of the performers were consistent with the pacing, and the younger members of the cast certainly were able to hold their own next to the adult members of the ensemble.
Another spectacular touch was Lewis’ use of staging several short scenes in the upper-level alcove of the theatre. It is such a luxury to be able to use differing areas for staging. That is one of the many amenities of Dudley Hall that I am absolutely in love with-oh, the possibilities that the alcove features present. In the other smaller raised area, there was a straightforward depiction of the London skyline in the shadows. It was a unique touch that allowed the entire space to be transformed into London.
Tina Barrus’s costumes were created and crafted so perfectly to the period you felt as though you were dropped smack dab in the middle of the Victoria era. There were a lot of details that Barrus incorporated into each costume, making them visually stunning and creative representations of the period. I have seen many productions at Plaza Theatre Company, with costumes designed by Barrus, and I am always impressed with the wardrobe in each production. There was a fantastic differentiation between the upper crust of London society and the lower-class criminals and residents of London. Barrus’ use of color, and mixing patterns and textures of fabrics was a fantastic touch in really separating each character in their small ensemble while giving the overall production an accurate depiction of clothing in Victorian London. In my opinion, costumes can be the hardest design element to tackle, and Barrus does it with such ease and talent.
The lighting was designed by Cameron Barrus. (Not only is Plaza Theatre Company a family for the community), but the entire production is a family affair at Plaza. In a musical that is very straightforward, there is not much that can be done with lighting. However, Barrus was able to create a wonderful mixture of light and shadow-highlighting some of the darker moments of the story. The most impressive moment for lighting was instant splashes of red-light representing murder toward the end of Act 2. As a frequent audience member, I absolutely love moments like this. It represents so much symbolically. Don’t blink, as it happens rather quickly-but, it will give you chills.
Stan Graner was phenomenal in the role of Fagin. Graner delivered a spot-on, and honest portrayal of the elderly criminal, who takes on the “not so fatherly” figure of the young boys who he trains as pickpockets. Not only did Graner deliver with an incredible singing voice, but he also delivered with his British dialect. Graner was given the ultimate task of carrying the production (in several scenes) while completely alone on stage. I have always been moved by actors who are given the huge responsibility of being alone on stage during a production. Not only do they have to keep the story moving, but they are also the sole element of focus for the audience. Graner carried these scenes across with confidence and eloquence. Additionally, Graner’s resume is quite impressive. It should come as no surprise to audiences who see him in this production that he has many years of production experience and a great deal of talent to support the observation.
Another standout was William Power in the role of the Artful Dodger. Power recently appeared in “The Sound of Music” at Granbury Theatre Company (which I also reviewed), and I hardly recognized him. The vast difference in his talents is superb! His range of acting is absolutely amazing! Through comedic delivery, a likable on-stage persona, and an incredible vocal range, Power brought an element of maturity to the role. He also brought an element of light-heartedness and merriness to a rather somber and depressing story I can tell that Power has the dedication, the heart, and the talent to be among the next generation of local and national theatrical performance artisans. He was lively, energetic, and portrayed such a genuine character. In a story where the youthful pickpockets represent crime in Victorian London, it is hard to find Power unlikeable.
Providing constant moments of humor throughout the story was Plaza Theatre Company veteran, JaceSon P. Barrus. Barrus is the epitome of the actor that every director desires to work with. His versatility on stage is absolutely phenomenal. I have seen Barrus in many types of productions, and styles of theatre, and I am never disappointed. In his performance of Mr. Sowerberry, Barrus provided some of the lighter, and more comedic moments. He had wonderful on-stage chemistry with Allison Stankey in the role of his wife, Mrs. Sowerberry. Their musical number, “That’s Your Funeral,” was a light observation on such a heavy topic. Both Barrus and Stankey had wonderfully comical facial expressions and brought life to these two rather dark, yet eccentric characters. Their scenes together were most enjoyable to watch.
Bringing down the house was Caitlan Leblo in the role of Nancy. Leblo’s performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” was outstanding! Leblo has the gift of many things, and her soprano voice is no different. Leblo is able to belt out beautiful notes that fill the space of Dudley Hall, much like a large opera house. Leblo has a powerful presence on stage and allows her character to take a liking to Oliver, while also becoming a maternal figure to him and the other children who live under the direction of Fagin. Leblo has strong reactions on stage and has a great deal of allure with her fellow ensemble. Oh, to have a voice like Leblo.
Young Nicholas Reed was spectacular in the role of Oliver. Reed’s stage presence was instantly amiable and appealing to watch on stage. His vocal talents and dialect were spot-on. Reed did a wonderful job creating instant and genuine chemistry with his fellow actors and actresses. After reading Reed’s biography in the program, I was impressed to see his resume of work-Reed has appeared in two National Tours (A Christmas Story: The Musical and Finding Neverland) and continues to work locally in and around the Fort Worth area. I look forward to seeing what Reed will do with his budding career as he matures. He will surely continue to be a strong presence on stage, and with every theatre company, he works with.
What makes this production of Oliver stand out on its own is their ability to focus on every aspect of their production separately, from the design elements to the production team to the work delivered by their casts. Plaza Theatre Company does create an extraordinary experience at the theatre. If you are looking for classic musical theatre, look no further. Oliver! Is certainly one of the prototypical productions in the archive of modern musical theatre. There are many instantly recognizable songs, and Plaza Theatre Company always provides an intimate and enjoyable experience at the theater.
To quote the Artful Dodger: “Consider yourself at home. Consider yourself one of the family….” Consider seeing “Oliver!” Parents and children alike will be guaranteed a fun, and pleasurable experience at the theater. A merry time will be had by all!
Plaza Theatre Company
Plaza Theatre Company at Dudley Hall
305 S Anglin St, Cleburne, TX 76031
Plays through April 30th.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 pm, Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm
Adults - $25
Seniors (65+) - $23
Students (13 - College) - $23
Children (under 12) - $15
Group rates available for ten or more
All ticket prices show an included $4 facility charge
For more information or to purchase tickets:
Call: 817-202-0600 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org