Ever since Literary legend, “Charles Dickens” first introduced the world to his juvenile hero, “Oliver Twist” in 1838, readers, movie-goers, and theater-enthusiasts alike have fallen in love with his tale of one impoverished urchin’s eventual victory over tragedy and injustice (along with more than a few touches of intrigue thrown in along the way!) Now, So Cal Audiences are currently getting acquainted with this intrepid lad and his adventures all over again now that “Musical Theatre West”—the Award-Winning musical production company at “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” in Long Beach California, has chosen for the third offering of their dynamic 66th Season, the endearing family favorite “Oliver!” ‘Freely’ adapted from Dickens’ classic second tome (whose FULL designation is: “Oliver Twist, Or The Parish Boy’s Progress”,) this Tony AND Academy Award-winning musical features a book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, while James A. Rocco serves as Director for MTW’s new staging, with Choreography by Hector Guerrero and Musical Direction by Ryan O’Connell.
From the very opening, at which time we find the orphan boy “Oliver” forced to toil in the Parish Workhouse, before he breaks away to embark on his quest to at last find that “someone who he may mean something to”, this musical re-envisioning takes audiences on a journey through some of the darker aspects of Not-So-Jolly Old England, circa 1840. Along his journey, he (and we) meet one of the most colorful cast of ‘Dramatis Personae’ ever to spring from the Master Author’s pen –from the pompous, bully of a “Beadle”,“ Mr. Bumble” and “Mr. Sowerberry”–the aptly monikered inebriate “Mortician” (to whom Oliver is first ‘indentured’,) to the cunning “Artful Dodger” who opens up a whole new (if sordid) society to the boy which includes “Fagin”–the roguish and wily leader of a gang of child pickpockets; the soft-hearted but star-crossed bar ‘wench’, “Nancy”, and her menacing ‘Mister’ “Bill Sykes”. In addition, Bart’s vivacious score is overflowing with such indelible standards as “Consider Yourself”; “Where is Love”, “As Long as He Needs Me”, “I’d Do Anything”, “Who Will Buy This Wonderful Feeling?”, “Food, Glorious Food”, “A Fine Life” and the boisterous appellative number, “Oliver!”
The entire show is distinctively fast-paced–frequently with very little dialogue between one phenomenal song and the next, and Director Rocco prudently capitalizes on this more ‘abbreviated’ book, saving all of the theatrical ‘magic’ for the genuinely awe-inspiring numbers—particularly the big group endeavors. His staging of the child-laborers morose march onto the stage in military formation clarifies right from the start that everything is strictly regimented for them; wistfully starting their opening declaration in praise of “Food Glorious Food”, it steadily builds energy even while they witness their ‘Betters’ (the overfed Governors of the Workhouse) having their own sumptuous banquet brought to them, while these ragamuffins are again subjected to “the same old gruel”. Not only is it a robust opening number with some elaborate moves performed in unison, it also gives rise to some terrific chorale work besides. The same can be said of the following interlude, “Oliver” which also incorporates a merrily melodic ‘quartet’ of those self-same “Governors” who take center-stage at the number’s apex. Afterward, Oliver’s ‘journey’ to London upon ‘escaping’ his servitude at the Undertaker’s is herein minimized (when asked, he mentions he hasn’t eaten in seven days which gives us some reference regarding how long he’s supposedly been traveling.) Also to Rocco’s credit, he leaves the violence inherent to the story, for the most part, left just ‘suggested’. We “get” how unhinged a man like “Bill Sikes” is, or how deplorable the conditions of the Workhouse or London slums are, and thankfully, that’s enough. Perhaps just as astute is his interpretation of the ending, which, while somewhat abrupt (again gratis Bart’s often sparse libretto) is nonetheless sufficiently heartwarming, but this time, Rocco provides hints of a more sincere and optimistic future for “Fagin” as opposed to the more patently cynical one proposed in the film.
Guerrero’s Choreography is likewise clever, and even ingenious in places, often utilizing inventive ‘stage pictures’ and tableaux, which spring out of, and compliment, Rocco’s direction superbly. Keen-eyed observers may also note a few very canny ‘homages’ to the motion-picture’s Oscar-winning Choreographer, “Onna White”—especially amidst “Consider Yourself” for which he’s fashioned a frisky, frothy, frolic through London’s infamous Piccadilly Circus (which also features some Grade-A group harmonies to match some befittingly first-rate footwork!) To follow this up, his staging of “Be Back Soon” is itself a lively toe-tapping intermezzo toward the close of the first act. After intermission, “Oom-Pah-Pah” generates another opportunity for more variety in dance-forms as he interjects snippets of a jaunty polka (the Waltz not fully coming into its own in popularity during this time.) Directly after, the initial phrases of “Who Will Buy” are kept relatively simple, and consequently hold a dreamy, otherworldly feel to them that’s mesmerizing to experience. Taking place (at first) only between “Oliver” (who looks down on the street from an upstairs window,) and four soloing “Artisans” (–a Flower Girl, a Milk Maid, a Strawberry Seller and a Knife-Sharpener,) it’s charming enough in its own right; but shortly after, when the guileless boy ventures out into the city on an errand for his new benefactor, the number resumes—blossoming into the larger, burlier and thrillingly kinetic sequence that we’ve been expecting involving the full ensemble. By incorporating a nifty street fair, the perfect excuse is provided to showcase some amazing acrobatic and athletic feats of high leaps and rapid-fire pirouettes—sending the overall “Wow Factor” skyrocketing! (At its conclusion, Oliver is once again nabbed by Nancy and Bet and taken back to Fagin’s lair.)
Each principal figure we encounter in this ‘saga’ is time-tested and thoroughly unforgettable, and all those playing them do every one justice. So too, this production features an ensemble that includes fifteen uber-talented pre-teen performers—and the grown, more ‘seasoned’ members of the company are every bit as accomplished! 11-year-old Travis Burnett time and again amazes in the title role of the hapless Workhouse Orphan “Oliver Twist”. Much like “Peter Pan’s” gal-pal “Wendy’, far too often “Oliver” is played as more of a not-quite-developed ‘pseudo– tyke’ to whom many things happen sans any real involvement on his part. Happily, this is most emphatically NOT the case with Burnett’s smart, multi-faceted depiction. His “Oliver” isn’t some starchy, emotionally detached ‘caricature’, but rather a refreshingly real and stalwart kid—fully involved in all the goings-on and thus legitimately worthy of our admiration and pity. In possession of some prodigious vocal chops to boot, he certainly makes the most of them—starting with the pensive “Where Is Love”, which provides a fantastic ‘intro.’ to our young protagonist, and Burnett endows it with just the right dash of introspection, giving us a glimpse into “Oliver’s” inner-strength and resilience that’s often lacking in many other representations. He also prevails with his verses of “I’d Do Anything”—substantially aiding this, which has hitherto always been a popular tune anyway, into becoming one of this production’s preeminent show-stoppers! Later, nabbed on his first day out as a would-be pick-pocket, “Oliver’ finds unexpected kindness from his intended “Target”, “Mr. Brownlow” (who, we come to learn, in true Dickensian custom, may turn out to be more than just a random stranger to him.)
Meanwhile, although he doesn’t appear until more than half-way through the first act, Davis Gaines as “Fagin” is indisputably worth waiting for, and it can also be asserted that he exhilaratingly adds still another remarkable characterization to his already lofty retinue of performances on the “Musical Theatre West” stages! His general ‘take’ on one of literature’s most epochal ‘anti-heroes’ is more that of a faded British ‘Dandy” in contrast to the stereotypically grasping, covetous–and overtly ‘Semitic’ scoundrel of Dicken’s novel and numerous cinematic adaptations thereof. Perceptively, it could be said that this tactic is very fitting for today’s more aware and sensitive audiences, but it also effectively allows Gaines to make he, whom “Sikes” spitefully calls “An avaricious old skeleton” or “The Dodger” deferentially refers to as a “respectable ol’ genelman”, utterly his own—and on his own terms. He does an impressive job with “Fagin’s’ inaugural chanson, “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two”, as well as with his contribution to “I’d Do Anything”. Then, as the first act draws to a close, he sends his youthful cohorts out into the streets to find their unwary ‘marks’ with the effervescent “Be Back Soon. Yet it’s Fagin’s final descant–the more melodramatic, and vaguely ‘Eastern European’ sounding/’Svendalinka-esque’ “Reviewing The Situation” (–complete with several graceful violin trills,) that’s undoubtedly his very finest hour, as this reputed reprobate and social outcast tries to envision better days for himself—minus the consortium of other thieves, miscreants and assorted bad-eggs. Throughout, Davis laudably the mines the maximum humor out of all his time before the footlights here!
As “Jack Dawkins”–better known to his more ‘hintimate’ acquaintances as the cunning and street-wise guttersnipe, “The Artful Dodger”, Jason Brewer admittedly has some very storied shoes to fill given that the role has become so ingrained in the collective consciousness of everyone who ever saw the 1968 big-screen blockbuster that garnered actor Jack Wild an Oscar nomination, or for those who can still recall a Pre-Monkees, Davy Jones partaking in numerous excerpts from the Broadway production on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. However, any doubts as to his sublime song-styling capabilities totally vanish with his opening notes of “Consider Yourself”. It too, begins more modestly then quickly grows into a full-cast triumph—as several others in “Fagin’s” under-age gang virtually back-flip and hand-spring into action as the number unfolds. Master Brewer subsequently scores big again when leading “I’d Do Anything”, where he is joined by Cayman Ilika as the ill-fated ‘tavern doxy’, “Nancy”. Ilika is another presence who doesn’t appear until sometime later in the goings-on, but when she does it’s nigh-on extraordinary! Perpetually clad in bright Scarlet (something quite scandalous for the day,) her “Nancy” isn’t simply a common run-of-the-mill ‘spit-fire’(more by circumstance than choice,) but instead a full-on bolt of lightning with a fittingly electrifying voice which easily transforms each of her songs into instant crowd-pleasers. Among these are the buoyant “I’d Do Anything” and an ode to resiliency called “A Fine Life”. Act Two opens in “The Three Cripples Pub” (a flimsy front for a veritable den of thieves,) where “Nancy” ignites the new act with the boisterous “Oom-Pah-Pah”—a riotous ensemble enterprise loaded with saucy double-entendres that rates as a towering entertaining achievement! While Ms. Ilika shines in just about all of the songs she’s consigned, her second act parlando, “As Long As He Needs Me” (and it’s related—portentous— reprise) are absolutely her most soul-stirring moments by far. Although her concluding refrains are mainly reprises, here too, each is solid and captivating. A stellar example of this occurs with her frenzied (and far less jubilant) recapitulation of “It’s A Fine Life”. (Defiant and even a trace bitter over her lot, through it she makes painfully clear, ‘fine’ it resolutely isn’t!)
As compassionate as “Nancy” is, “Fiendish” is the word that best describes Kenny Landmon’s turn as her murderously abusive Robber-Boyfriend, “Bill Sikes”. In his hands, “Bill” is a lanky, ominous, and altogether dreadful man of few words which increases his horror (in all the best, if brutish and bloodthirsty ways!) Landmon’s post-intermission, ‘manifesto’ “My Name”, in which he exults over how treacherous he most assuredly is, categorically gets the point across that “Bill” is one man you don’t want to come across—let alone cross, delivered as it is in an almost half-sung half-snarled manner! William Hartery too, is delectably diabolical as the tyrannically self-righteous (although far from above a few larcenies of his own,) Workhouse ‘Beadle”, “Mr. Bumble”. Gifted with a decidedly “High Powered” voice he similarly can claim proprietorship over, Hartery elegantly demonstrates this straight-off with some momentous sustained notes at the commencement of the titular ditty: “Before we take the boy to task, may I be so curious as to ask his name?!” he booms aggressively; “OLIVER!” they all carol forth in reply. (Ironically, it was “Bumble” who named the baby “Oliver” upon the luckless lad’s birth in the parish poorhouse.) “We must get rid of this canker in our midst” he snaps at the song’s conclusion; “Mark my words Mrs. Corney, That boy was born to be hung!” Opposite him most of the time is Cathy Newman as the short-tempered and overbearing “Widow Corney”—who, through the course of the story, eventually becomes the even more insufferable “Mrs. Bumble”. “You are a humane woman” the Beadle tells her when she offers him a tot of gin (that, we’re told, she usually saves to give to the workhouse infants when they’re a ‘mite’ on the colicky side!) Their duet, “I Shall Scream” (that even has our “Bumble” chasing the Widow around her front parlour) is a top-flight comic highlight—one where Newman herself gets to show off some formidable ‘money notes’ in its ride-out! This pernicious pair also make an appearance in the show’s second half, having fortuitously happened upon a scrap of information that relates to our eponymous hero’s ‘true identity”. Attempting to ‘cash in’ on what (little) they know, they pay a call on “Mr. Brownlow” which occasions another sonorous reprise of “Oliver”: “Apparently he’s from a rich family; And to think we nearly, stupidly, went and lost track of him…(if the truth were known we both were delighted at seeing the back of him!) Oliver, Oliver, what’ll we do—we must give him his due, and we’ll praise the day somebody gave us AH-LEE-VAH!” they shamelessly gloat.
Other’s in the cast disburse excellent support, albeit in slightly smaller more ‘functional roles. As Oliver’s eventual ‘benefactor’ and guardian, “Mr. Brownlow”, Doug Carfrae supplies a forthright and creditable performance. He may not sing much (in fact, “Brownlow’ doesn’t really sing at all,) but like his young Co-Star Burnett, he manages to make the most out of an often-marginalized role. Ciara Tadeo also provides a stand-up—standout–portrayal as Nancy’s pint-sized acolyte, “Bet”. Largely charged with ‘contributing’ to larger numbers than actually leading them, her “Bet” is pleasantly more visible and has been handed much more to do than in previous versions. In this regard, Tadeo injects a nice shot of energy, vibrance, and variety to any number she’s a part of. These include “It’s A Fine Life”, “I’d Do Anything” and “Oom-Pah-Pah”.
Moreover, Kevin McMahon and Cynthia Ferrer both do double duty in several widely varying roles. He, as the sodden Mortician “Mr. Sowerberry”, then as Brownlow’s always bloviating (but in reality, generous and caring) pal, “Mr. Grimwig”; she, as the shrewish, colder-than-a-corpse herself, “Mrs. Sowerberry”, then as Brownlow’s maternal-spirited housekeeper, “Mrs. Bedwin”. Done-up in their more sepulchral personas, think of them as Victorian society’s answer to “Rocky Horror’s” “Riff Raff” and “Magenta”, where their primary ‘spot-light’ moment together ensues early on with “It’s Your Funeral”–a fiendishly gleeful exaltation over the profession they’ve chosen: “We’re just here to glamorize you for that endless sleep; you might just as well look fetching–when you’re six-feet deep!” Chaz Feuerstine also strikes theatrical gold as their swaggering, combative “Apprentice” “Noah Claypool”, seething with conceit as he persecutes the ‘new boy’. Brief but brilliant, Feuerstine’s “Noah” is one of the more memorable characters in a musical overflowing with memorable characters!
In any show with an era-specific setting (–and definitely with one that’s so enigmatic as Victorian England,) the scenery and other technical elements take on an increased significance. Auspiciously, these basic essentials—and those responsible for them, do not in any way disappoint either! Discerningly incorporating several ramps, the multi-level scenery designed by Dennis Hassan (and designed and constructed by the “Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre”,) are a wonder in themselves, and are everything one might imagine a Workhouse, Funeral Parlour or Hovel in 1800’s Britain would look like. Augmenting them are a few rear-screen projections (with pictures that recall the book’s original illustrations by George Cruikshank,) thus allowing the iconic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to literally ‘lord’ over all of the proceedings. Paul Black’s moody lighting designs also commingle several evocative lighting effects which make the grays become even grayer, and the bleak become even bleaker, giving rise to numerous long, disquieting shadows seemingly cast around every corner (—and more pointedly, in the danker localities in London!) Most searing perhaps is the way he has “Bill Sikes” spread a long unforgiving shadow across “London Bridge” immediately after he has committed his most dreadful deed. Worthy of note too, is the sound design by “Audio Production Geeks, L.L.C.” which provide deeper resonance and reverberation when needed, giving many of the numbers an enhanced vigor and rhythmical ‘muscle’. What’s more, the magnificent period costumes by Tamara Becker are comparably a sight to behold, and she judiciously uses simple fashion fundamentals to provide greater insights into those on-stage who wear them. Indeed, contrary to what “Bet” asserts through her lyrics in “A Fine Life”, Becker has utilized her share of “flounces, feathers, frills and furbelows” to paint her own brand of artistic masterpieces through apparel; but it’s where she strays from the conventional path that her most innovative costume concoctions ‘materialize’. Among these are Fagin’s gaudy long-since faded blue Indian-silk long-coat and matching (equally bedraggled) knee-breeches, or “Bumble’s” navy blue ‘Caped’ coat with matching ‘Bi-corn” hat and the ‘proper’ amount of neck-ruffles for his ‘elevated’ station; ‘The Dodger’s’ beige and brown obviously ‘hand-me down’ waist-coat (several sizes too big, naturally,) and his dingy-gray distressed top-hat (also a tad large for him.) For all of these though, her imaginative creations truly catch the eye with Sowerberry’s elegiac black top-hat (not to mention the corresponding ‘veil’,) oversized ‘mourning coat’ and somber silk bow-tie, matched with his ‘wife’s’ ebony crepe frock, that’s intensified by her wild ‘Frankenstein-ian’ upswept hair.
‘Consider yourself well in’—store for an incredibly entertaining time with MTW’s “Oliver!” Having ‘officially’ opened on Saturday, February 9th, “Oliver” is slated to play through Sunday, February 24th, 2019 at “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” located on the campus of California State University Long Beach, 6200 Atherton Street, Long Beach, CA. Showtimes are: Friday evenings at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday matinees at 1:00 PM. There will be additional performances on Thursday, February 21st at 8:00 PM and Sunday February 17th at 6:00 PM. Tickets are available on-line by logging onto: www.musical.org , by phone at: (562) 856-1999, or from the “Musical Theatre West Box-office” located at: 4350 East 7th Street (at the corner of 7th and Ximeno) in Long Beach.
Production Stills By “Caught In The Moment Photography”, Long Beach CA. (www.caughtinthemoment.com ) Courtesy Of “Musical Theatre West”; Special Thanks To Paul Garman, Lori Yonan, James A. Rocco, Hector Guerrero, Ryan O’Connell And To The Cast And Crew Of “Musical Theatre West’s” 2019 Production Of “Oliver!” For Making This Story Possible.