OLIVER!Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Originally adapted by Lionel Bart
Music Director/Conductor: Jay Dias
Stage Director: Cheryl Denson
Choreographer: Ann Nieman
Production Stage Manager: Margaret J. Soch
Properties Design: Jane Quentin
Scenic Design: Mark Morton
Costume Design: Drenda Lewis
Sound Design: Bill Eickenloff
Lighting Design: Julie N. Moroney
Oliver - Jack VanGorden
Mr. Bumble - Mike Gallagher
Widow Corney - Christine Chambers
Mr. Sowerberry - Gordon Fox
Mrs. Sowerberry/Old Sally - Kelley Murphy Perlstein
Charlotte - Amber Nicole Guest
Noah Claypole - Cayman Mitchell
Artful Dodger - Clayton Slee
Fagin - Jonathan Beck Reed
Nancy - Catherine Carpenter Cox
Bet - Rebekah Wheeler
Bill Sykes - Daylon Walton
Mrs. Bedwin - Sarah Comley Caldwell
Mr. Brownlow - Tom DeWester
Dr. Grimwig - Shane Strawbridge
Old Lady - Vicki Dean
Reviewed Performance: 6/11/2011
Reviewed by Bonnie K. Daman, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What a profound quote from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. I have heard this phrase a few times since my days of English Literature and each time I hear it I'm reminded of how poetic Dickens' collected works are and their impact to my own memories and to society. The author's ability to romanticize just about any theme in a written work is to his credit because the original story of Oliver Twist is not a lighthearted tale.
The account of an orphaned boy in 19th century London, young Oliver is raised in a workhouse under cruel conditions only to be kicked out upon asking for more food ? consequence of a bet he lost. Sold to an undertaker, he then flees from his guardian and happens upon a motley group of street urchins including a boy known as the Artful Dodger. Dodger and crew take Oliver in under the watchful eye of Fagin, a local thief and leader to the band of boys who turn out to be pickpockets.
Oliver indubitably maintains an uncanny innocence believing the group makes an honest living. So while working the streets with Dodger, Oliver is caught and accused of stealing a handkerchief. Acquitted of the crime he is taken to live with Mr. Brownlow, a kindhearted man of wealth and status whose handkerchief was the one stolen.
In the closing scenes Fagin, who fears Oliver may reveal his gang, is forced to confess the ordeal to Bill Sykes, a feared criminal. Fagin, Sykes and Nancy, whose own tragedy befalls her due to her undying love for Sykes, concoct a plan to get Oliver back resulting in an ending befitting each individual.
While the original tale of Oliver Twist was characteristically gloomy and glamorizes the unjust, in 1960 when author and composer Lionel Bart created the musical play Oliver!, the same hopeless themes were present but there was frivolity and redemption found in it as well. Fifty years and many awards later Bart's musical is performed across the world. It was a pleasure to experience it live at Lyric Stage in Irving.
I love this musical. In my mind, I feel as if no theatre can do wrong by it because fifty percent of the cast are children. They may or may not have talent but to see the joy on their faces as they sing and dance is priceless. So, perhaps true to the aforementioned quote from Dickens, my pre-existing attitude toward this show and my personal view of these characters might have voided out the performance I saw last Saturday evening. However with the skill and flawlessness represented by the Lyric Stage cast, all of my concerns were null and void.
I counted 25 young men on stage for the opening number "Food, Glorious Food". What a task for Jay Dias as Music Director! The boys blended like a choir that had been performing together for months rather than a few weeks. The same could be said for other numbers such as "Pick a Pocket or Two" and "It's a Fine Life". Even with a handful of older teens, their baritone voices still melded into the group.
Dias also conducted a beautifully orchestrated team of musicians permitting Lyric Stage to boast as one of the only local theatres to host a full orchestra for productions.
Jack VanGorden began to stand out about halfway through the opening song before I realized he was the title character. He had charisma and charm and it seemed only natural when he stepped forward as Oliver Twist.
The real test of any young actor playing Oliver is his performance of "Where is Love". A small boy alone onstage who needs to capture the hearts of his audience within a three minute song was no small feat. VanGorden's voice was crystal clear in his rendition allowing a slight but appropriate amount of emotion to come through on key lyrics.
VanGorden's overall performance was true to the character - simple, boyish and innocent. Although he seemed a little tall for the role Director Cheryl Denson did a fine job of playing with levels on the set and casting the younger characters around him to create balance.
The Artful Dodger played by Clayton Slee had always been one of my favorite characters in this show and Slee did not disappoint. The mirror opposite of Oliver, Dodger was a cocky, rambunctious know-it-all. Slee's Cockney accent was spot on and everything, from the playful flips of his top hat to his posture as he leaned this way and that, established the quirky young character. Most notably was Slee's ability to hold his own in acting and singing opposite the adults such Fagin and Nancy. He equally matched their powerhouse performances.
This show was actually my first time to experience a performance at Irving Arts Center and I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of talent that had been brought in for the Oliver! adult cast. Granted I had never heard of the following actors and performers before but they were sure to become crowd favorites if they were not already.
Mike Gallagher and Christine Chambers as Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, respectively, were the dynamic duo of the evening. Previously when I would watch Oliver! I glazed over the scenes regarding these two characters but with Gallagher and Chambers together I was like a kid in a candy store. I honestly could not find one thing to criticize about their performance because I literally forgot I was there to review the show. Everything around me blurred and I was drawn in from their first duet of "I Shall Scream". They embodied every bit of those roles.
Though only a prominent figure in the second act Daylon Walton portrayed the malicious criminal Bill Sykes. I halfway expected the theme music of the Wolf from Peter and the Wolf to play when Walton entered the room. He was dark and menacing and an enormous presence onstage. As the main antagonist Walton was commanding and didn't hesitate to utilize his physical strength during a scene. It was obvious to see the cast's trust in him and, as testament to his performance; Mr. Walton received the appropriate "booing" at curtain call.
Cast as Nancy it would seem that the role was tailor-made for Catherine Carpenter Cox. According to their website Miss Cox was a familiar face with Lyric Stage having starred in such titles as Evita and Bye, Bye Birdie. More than just the mother figure of the show, Nancy is the cord that holds everyone together. In a lot of ways I felt the same of Miss Cox's role as an actor ? she nearly stole the show.
Cox was riveting! She captivated her young cast members and at the same time portrayed the tortured part of Nancy that was in love with the wrong kind of man. What I most looked forward to was her performance of "As Long As He Needs Me". It was a gut-wrenching song and a turning point for Nancy and while Cox's delivery was flawless I thought it almost too powerful of a performance; almost like the intensity of the scene was figuratively at a "10" when it only needed to be at an "8". Whatever the take away, Miss Cox was surely a force to be reckoned with and I hope to hear great things about her career in New York.
The final lead cast member rivaled Cox in stealing this past weekend's performance. As well he should since the character of Fagin was predominantly top-billed. Jonathan Beck Reed superseded my expectations for Fagin. Beyond the makeup and wig he personified the Jewish gang leader "to a T". His mannerisms and peculiarities were amusing and precocious and I enjoyed every bit. Reed excelled in physical comedy ? who'd have thought twiddling fingers could be so humorous ? and like the Pied Piper he led Fagin's small group of pickpockets with glee and a twinkle in his eye. This performance was one for the books!
The set design for Oliver! was its own character. If you remember back to English Lit, there was always that one novel where the teacher described a town or the weather as having its own personality, Dickens' novels included. That was how this set was built - a three-dimensional, colossal rotating character that could become anything the stage crew wanted it to be. Pulling together the scenic design, lighting and backdrops, the set for Oliver! received its own applause when the curtain was drawn for Act I, Scene I.
Costume Design was by Drenda Lewis. Miss Lewis gradually evolved the overall look for the cast as the show progressed, beginning with the solid, dull-colored utilitarian clothing at the workhouse and moving into the London scenes with flower girls, bakers, fishermen and the like dressed in spots of color. The three lead adult actors (Fagin, Nancy, and Sykes) donned pieces of clothing in different shades of red; whether that was representative of their fates or not, the visual created a nice tie in.
Ann Neiman's choreography was reminiscent of the Oliver! films and Broadway show. It wasn't over-simplified nor was it random, unexplainable movement but was choreography that made sense. "Pick a Pocket or Two" was perhaps the more involved number and whether it was Neiman's choreography or Cheryl Denson's direction, the actions that went hand in hand with the lyrics were not lost on stage amidst the group of boys.
As for Denson, I saw why Oliver! was her 44th show as Director for Lyric Stage. Her ability to corral this diverse cast - from young and old, veteran actors and novices - required skill and talent. It's usually when an actor or a scene feels unnatural that I notice a missing link in the direction however I'm pleased to say that feeling was absent that night. Everything from the actors, the music, sound, sets and lighting ran seamlessly without disruption.
Unfortunately for the Metroplex, Lyric Stage only runs a show for two weekends. Fortunate for those who are lucky enough to get a ticket, it's worth the drive to Irving to catch Lyric Stage at its best. So "review your situation" and don't miss the final chance to see Oliver!.
Irving Arts Center, Carpenter Performance Hall
3333 North MacArthur, Irving, TX 75062
Runs through June 19th
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:30 PM.
For tickets or information, go to www.lyricstage.org or call 972-252-2787.