OLIVER! at Home at Toby's
Oliver!—Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’s second novel—works best during its episodic first act. As the eponymous young orphan is shuttled from one wretched place to another—a brutal workhouse where he has the temerity to ask for more gruel, an undertaker’s parlor, a den of pickpockets and bolder criminals—he crosses paths with some of the more memorable characters, both gentle and grotesque, in musical theatre.
It is only when all the plot points are in place for Act Two, with Oliver a mostly passive observer in his fate, that satire gives way to melodrama and delightfully catchy songs such as “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” and “Pick a Pocket or Two” (it’s actually quite astounding how many classic melodies Oliver! contains) give way to sentimental ballads such as “As Long as He Needs Me,” a shamelessly manipulative number belted by a gold-hearted prostitute mere seconds after her vicious lover has backhanded her across the eye.
It’s little surprise, then, that the streamlined production of Oliver! currently playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Baltimore sparkles early but grows increasingly flat. This is really not the fault of the hardworking cast and crew, who from start to finish turn in crisp, professional work. Still, the apparent desire by director Shawn Kettering to maintain a brisk pace, combined with the abbreviated script—which trims expository scenes and cuts several minor characters and reprises of songs—leaves little room for actors to linger in the moment, whether for comic or poignant effect. Indeed, though I was entertained throughout, I do not recall much laughter, and the happy ending, which unfolds almost matter-of-factly, failed to move me.
That said, there is much in this production worth praising, from the wrenching tableau of abused boys huddled behind locked gates that opens the show to a series of standout performances in key roles, including Maria Egler as Nancy, the aforementioned prostitute (though the musical never specifies this detail from the novel); David Bosley-Reynolds as Fagin, the aging mentor of child pickpockets; and Zachary McKinney as his top pupil, “the Artful Dodger.” (McKinney alternates in the role with Aviad Bernstein.) McKinney and Bosley-Reynolds (unrecognizable beneath a long, natty wig and crooked posture) bring easy charm to the thieving pair, and Egler—my disdain for manipulative ballads notwithstanding—sings hers magnificently.
In my experience, the primary qualification for playing Oliver seems to be the ability to remain cute under duress. T. J. Langston (who alternates in the role with John Morrison) certainly achieves this, though he also brings a defiant spunkiness to Oliver that is pleasingly incongruent with his tiny frame. (He did struggle a bit to sustain the higher notes required by the role.) His fellow orphans in the workhouse also alternate performances; the group I saw (Kylie Cooley, Palmer Foran, Derek Galvin, Adalia Jimenez, and Jordan Silver) sang and danced skillfully and nailed the Cockney accents.
Andrew Horn and April Blandin make a deliciously ludicrous pair as Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, the caretakers of the workhouse, who project Puritanical authority in public and flirt like lusty schoolchildren in private. Daniel L. McDonald and Tina Marie DeSimone are amusingly sleazy as the undertakers who intend to groom Oliver for the role of following solemnly behind funeral processions. Alan Hoffman looks and sounds the part as the murderous Bill Sykes, though he works a bit too hard to seem intimidating; a flatter, cooler affect might be scarier.
The set, designed by David A. Hopkins, employs sliding partitions and several backdrops to suggest the wide range of locales through which Oliver travels, and director Kettering—assisted by lighting designer Lynn Joslin—stages the numerous scene changes efficiently and unobtrusively. The performers execute Ms. DeSimone’s choreography with lively precision, and they are well served by Janine Sunday’s period costumes. Musical directors Reenie Codelko and Pamela Wilt take turns leading a two-person orchestra that nevertheless produces a full, harmonious sound.
Oliver! is playing at Toby’s Baltimore Dinner Theatre, located in the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center at 5625 O’Donnell Street, through June 6. Doors open at 6 P.M. for evening performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 5 P.M. on Sundays, and 10:30 A.M. for Thursday and Sunday matinee brunches. Tickets are $34.50–$54. For additional information or to purchase tickets, call 410-649-1660 or 866-99-TOBYS or go to www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.