Thalian Association brings Lionel Bart’s delightful musical, “Oliver!”— based on Charles Dickens’ book “Oliver Twist”—to Thalian Hall’s main stage. Directed by Michael Laurincella, it is a marvelous evening, perfect for introducing children to theatre. It also reminds adults why they fell in love with it in the first place.
Bart’s musical premiered in London in 1960 and was adapted into an academy award-winning film in 1968. (Fun fact: Joe Dunton, of JDC camera on 23rd Street, actually developed the playback technology used while filming the dance scenes for the movie—which became the basis for the video assist that is standard on film sets now.) Dickens’ novel, which appeared in serial edition from 1837-39, is incredibly dark and complicated, and very difficult to streamline to a two-and-half-hour musical. But Bart hits the high points and moves the story along at a pretty rapid pace.
It opens with “Food, Glorious Food”—an ode to food and all the wondrous possibilities it holds for a group of children in a Victorian workhouse (Will Schraff, Annabele Arnett, Bay Allebach, Emma Kay Willis, Sommer Skylynne Bradley, Nolan Wilson, Sarah Rudeseal, Hans Oskar, Graham Westermark, Eva Smith, Esme Madi, Jamar Pridgen, Sam Warner, Etta Jabaley, Preston Hardgrove, Dominick Suchecki) who subsist on gruel and dream of heartier fare. Run with ruthless authority by Mr. Bumble (Jim Bowling) and the Widow Courney (Kathy Day), daily life at the workhouse is thrown into complete chaos when one boy, Oliver Twist (Garret Reider), dares to ask for more gruel. Bumble and Courney decide Oliver must leave the workhouse.
Bowling and Day are at turns frightening, funny and reprehensible. They tower over Reider, who isn’t so much scared of them as he is perplexed by them. Actually, Reider’s Oliver is prepared to take most things in stride, even being sold to Mr. Sowerberry (Troy Rudeseal). At least there he gets scraps of meat from Charlotte (Hunter Wyatt), the house servant. It is a definite improvement over the workhouse—except for Noah Claypole (Dalton Crocker), the senior apprentice, and romantic interest of Charlotte. Noah is a bully, and Oliver is just too easy a target, especially once Noah discovers Oliver has one easy-to-push button: besmirching the good name of Oliver’s dear, departed mother. Claypole can’t resist taunting Oliver, and all hell breaks loose upon retaliation.
Now homeless and hungry, Oliver wanders the streets until he is befriended by The Artful Dodger (Joe Basquill). Basquill’s Dodger is a sort of music-man-like character: He is charming and cunning, and uses performance as his greatest weapon. The Dodger entices Oliver to join him and some other boys (“Consider Yourself”) in his home, which actually belongs to Fagin (Jamey Stone).
Fagin runs a ring of young pickpockets, and takes their spoils in exchange for food and a roof to sleep under. Fagin’s gang (Anthony Reynolds, Reno Ray, Joey Smith, Hyrum Smith, Will Rudesael, Caleb Hector, Cooper Herrett, and Andrew Penny) teaches Oliver how to rob the unsuspecting with the song-and-dance number, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” If Oliver had any qualms about staying, they are banished by the appearance of Nancy (Jamison Nelson) and her sister Bet (Amy Carter). Nancy is the other half of the great, terrifying Bill Sykes (Mike Maykish)—the thief and villain of whom even Fagin is scared. Sykes’ sidekick is Bullseye (Vinnie Lauricella), an entirely sweet and handsome dog who, frankly, could find better company. For all the hard and distrustful anger Maykish imbues in each song of Sykes, Nancy and Vinnie bring sunlight and joy to the people he terrorizes. Life isn’t so bad in Fagin’s gang, but still, it’s not the Ritz, as Will Rudeseal reminds with a solo so beautiful and sweet, he will captivate the hearts of everyone.
Oliver’s adventures in the city of London continue on their improbable course and Reider responds to all of it with wonder and hope, making Oliver someone the audience wants to root for. He just seems too kind for the world he has been thrust into.
Director Michael Lauricella has a really clear and specific vison for the show and it comes through. The team he has assembled is wonderful. Beth Swindell’s choreography is tremendous and makes the crowd scenes actually work. Nickolas Fenner’s lighting design is evocative of the Victorian underworld with a smoky grittiness and a very memorable lamppost. But Troy Rudeseal’s sets are a revelation. Incorporating multiple levels to create bridges, sewers, attics and basements, the details of the portraits and practicality of pieces, are startling. Lauricella is an accomplished musician and performer in his own right, and though the picture is perfectly assembled, it’s apparent his heart is truly with the music. To that end, the songs are fabulous, thanks to great voices singing with lots of gusto. Jamison Nelson as Nancy has one of the most standout numbers, “As Long As He Needs Me.” But her drinking song, “Oom Pah-Pah,” with the ensemble in the tavern is the one I walked out humming. She really sells it.
“Oliver!” is a success on every front: The stage is filled with lots of cute kids singing and dancing. The adults in the cast and the creative team bring the harder aspects of the story to the fore, with just enough humor to take the edge off. Bowling and Day manage the full circle of flirtation to marital squabble in a very believable but short journey. The story is moving and Lauricella even finds an additional avenue to make the message of “Oliver Twist” pertinent.
He points out in the program Vinnie, who plays Bullseye the Dog, was in search of a home and love when he was in the Columbus County Animal Shelter. Vinnie will be greeting fans at the stage door after each performance for audiences to find out how to help other dogs find a path he and Oliver both took to secure a home and love. Perhaps what makes Dickens’ work so frustrating is how well he hones in on the selfish motivations of each character at the expense of others. Indeed, when someone tries to benefit another, they are punished for it. The rewards for helping others comes in an escape from life—not a celebration of it.
“Oliver!” delivers fabulous sets and costumes, big dance numbers with toe-tapping tunes to be sung for days. It’s a reminder of the power of song to tell the heart of a story.