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Oliver!

At The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
January 2011
Special to The Alexandria Times

 

Mr. Bumble takes in Oliver - photo by Shane Canfield

Mr. Bumble takes in Oliver - photo by Shane Canfield

 

 

That Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” has huge universal appeal and relevancy today is not in question here.  And though millions have seen this ubiquitously mounted musical on countless stages, in schools and community theatres around the world, millions more will.   Since the spectacular score…sixteen memorable songs…plus a heart-strings pulling story, continues its reign as one of Britain’s most endearing theatre exports.

Our story opens 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 mother’s love, he lives amongst the thieves and scallywags that patrol the lawless warrens of the city.  From this familiar Charles Dickens tale Bart crafted his iconic musical, drawing on themes of love, kindness, desperation and redemption to circumscribe the music.

To love Oliver is to have hope and it is well engendered on this stage by a captivating cast of workhouse urchins.  These eleven fellow 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!  Where’s my runcible spoon?  Never mind.  We’re 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 James Woods (Oliver) 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 “That’s Your Funeral” they triumph their plans to have “mourners in all corners”, marking the start of poor Oliver’s downward spiral into crime.

In the duet, “I Shall Scream” we enjoy Jeffrey Clarke’s roguishly seductive Mr. Bumble who is well matched to Mary Ayala-Bush’s come-hither Widow Corney, oozing coyness and feigned elusiveness to his flowery 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 and Pocket or Two” and we’re off to a riotous life of crime.

The success of this particular production is a tribute to the skill and direction of Roland Branford 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 seven-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.  Terrific performances by all the principals, especially Mike Baker Jr. as the nefarious and avaricious Fagin who brings a sinister dynamic to “Reviewing the Situation”, and Paul Caffrey as the misogynistic con artist Bill Sykes who 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.

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