Moving Melodrama: “Oliver!”

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Photo by Gary Ng

Photo by Gary Ng

presented by Wheelock Family Theatre

Adapted from the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart.
Directed by Susan Kosoff.
Musical direction by Jon Goldberg.
Choreography by Laurel Conrad.

January 25th – February 24th, 2013
200 The Riverway
Boston, MA
Wheelock Family Theatre Facebook Page

Review by Craig Idlebrook

Because Charles Dickens has become such a part of our cultural tapestry, the edges of his work have been smoothed with time; but make no mistake, Dickens is a social commentator first and a storyteller second.  Often his stories are a series of unfortunate events, where good people must navigate the evils of society while trying to keep their souls intact.

Dickens’ second-most popular piece of fiction Oliver Twist, adapted for the musical Oliver!, now playing at the Wheelock Family Theatre, is remembered fondly by theatergoers as being a show that allows well-fed children to pretend to be orphans begging for gruel, but it is one of Dickens’ many attempts to show that the game is rigged against the poor.  Essentially, an innocent boy, Oliver Twist (Charlie Clinton), keeps getting mixed up with the wrong sort when all he wants is a roof over his head, enough to eat and someone to love.  Things start bad and get worse for him throughout much of the play.  Start off wrong, Dickens warns, and only the cosmic coincidences that come from a writer’s pen can save you.

It takes theatrical mastery to keep this story from being more than a cautionary tale for children to avoid the orphan life, but playwright Lionel Bart is up to the task, creating engaging songs that look deep inside the story’s villains to find fatal flaws familiar to us all.  Bart and Wheelock director Susan Kosoff work in concert to give three-dimensional depth to some of Dickens’ shallowest characters in this energetic production.

Here, everyone must play the bad hand they are dealt by life.  The keepers of his orphanage, Mr. Bumble (Dan Dowling Jr.) and Widow Corney (Gamalia Pharms) are blinded by their false sense of virtue, which blocks them from seeing their own mistreatment of their charges.  A master thief who takes in Oliver, Fagin (Jane Staab) desperately seeks a way out of crime, but realizes he’s too old to change professions.  A prostitute, Nancy (Brittany Rolfs), who first betrays and then tries to save Oliver, believes she can’t help her actions because she is ensnared in an abusive relationship.  And nowhere is this theme more readily apparent than in the pin-dropping entrance of the most evil of the bunch, Bill Sikes (Timothy John Smith).  Sikes wears his perchance for violence and treachery like a soaked woolen overcoat that weighs his soul down to hell; even he, the most powerful person on stage, can do little but be who he is prescribed to be.

The cast list for this production reads like an all-star team of past Wheelock family productions.  Staab, last seen here as the Wicked Witch of the West, is gender-bendingly brilliant as Fagin, using just a few wisps of facial hair to transform herself into a nuanced king of thieves.  Rolfs, the dogged teacher in a recent production of The Miracle Worker, maintains the same whirling dervish motif to show a drunk and abused woman’s off-kilter thinking.  And Smith, once the likable Cowardly Lion, physically captures the stage by creating a villain powerful enough to know he doesn’t have to be in a hurry to be menacing.

Through these courageous and sometimes violently energetic performances, we connect with each villain, which is good because Dickens draws his heroes so shallowly.  The young actor Charlie Clinton deserves kudos for infusing a mischievous glint and energy into our hero to show that he is something special, and not just virtue incarnate.

This show is ably backed by set designers Matthew T. Lazure and Anthony Hancock, who combine to create a tired, cobblestone London, with enough nooks and crannies for the marginalized to hide.  Lighting designer also deserves credit for creating an overcast London sky that lets in some light, but not enough to illuminate a way out for the trapped populace below.

A word of caution: this play does have three deaths, two of which are violent.  If the child you take to this play is young enough and astute enough, you might find yourself doing some explaining afterwards.

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