REVIEW: We've Taken to You So Strong - Oliver! at the Walnut Street

REVIEW: We've Taken to You So Strong - Oliver! at the Walnut Street


Walnut Street Theatre's production of Oliver! is, in a word, stunning. This might seem like an odd word choice for a show that mainly takes place in the workhouse and seedier sides of Victorian London but there is no other way to describe the technical beauty of the show.

From the moment the audience enters the theater, they find themselves engrossed in the scene. Misty smoke spills off the stage through the workhouse gate, while thunder crashes and lightening flashes. And from there, the set only gets better. From elaborate spinning sets to Fagin's two story hide away, set designer Todd Edward Ivins takes the audience into the back alley's of London. The costumes, designed by Colleen Grady, are impeccably detailed with everything from holes to stains on the women's hemlines.

The cast is huge featuring thirty-one adults, two teams of twenty children (one set performs during the week and the other on the weekends), and one rescued hearing-impaired bulldog. It is obvious that every member of the ensemble, be they adult or child, has a back story and a clearly developed character. Director Mark Clements must have spent a good amount of time on character work to make this happen and it pays off, the street scenes, especially "Consider Yourself" and "Who Will Buy?" are magical. No matter where the audience looks there's a new character to meet. The choreography by Mary Jane Houdina also highlights the talents of this strong ensemble.

The entire ensemble sounds phenomenal thanks to the music/vocal direction of Duglass G. Lutz. The moment the children begin singing "Food, Glorious Food," the audience was sucked in. The children are both adorable and sincerely believable. Gregory Smith (Oliver) has an angelic soprano voice and a smile that captures Oliver's naivety.

Janine DiVita highlights the spunky side of her character Nancy, but pours every amount of emotion into "As Long as He Needs Me." (Her breath support in this number is also astounding.) From that point forward, the audience feels for Nancy, truly understanding her predicament as an abused woman in love and believing her compassion for Oliver.

The comedic couples are also memorable parts of the show. Mr. Bumble (Scott Greer) and Widow Corney's (Mary Martello) duet "I Shall Scream" is hilariously brought to life in this staging. Funeral parlor owners, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Peter Schmitz and Denise Whelan), make the horror of Oliver's predicament and sale easier to swallow.

Finally, Philly native and Broadway veteran Hugh Panaro steals the show with his portrayal of Fagin. The writing provides us with a Fagin we love to hate. He corrupts these boys, Oliver especially, is under the thumb of Bill Sykes, and hides many treasures solely for his own benefit. However, Panaro's portrayal adds humanization to Fagin. His skill with word play and comedy make the numbers "You've Got to Pick a Pocket,"  "Be Back Soon," and "Reviewing the Situation," absolute highlights of the show. It is this human side of Fagin that makes Sykes the true, and perhaps only villain, of the show.

Ultimately this production emphasizes the comedic aspects of Lionel Bart's musical, a directing choice that serves to make the tragedy hit home with even greater effect.  In fact without the reprise of "Consider Yourself" and "I'd do Anything" at the curtain call, the tragedy, would perhaps overshadow the rest of the show. However, these reprises are sure to leave all with smiles on their faces, a tune on their lips and saying "Cheerio, but be back soon."

According to the Official Press Release: The Walnut Street Theatre continues its landmark 201st season with a masterful new staging of Lionel Bart's OLIVER! One of the world's most beloved musicals, the production's magical score is full of Lionel Bart's irresistible songs including "Food Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself," "You've Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two," "I'd Do Anything," "As Long As He Needs Me" and many more. Helmed by Barrymore Award-Winning Director Mark Clements and featuring Philly native and Broadway leading man Hugh Panaro as Fagin, OLIVER! begins previews on November 10, opens on November 18 and runs through January 10 on the WST Mainstage.

Based on Charles Dickens' classic Oliver Twist, OLIVER! is the story of a young orphan boy who wanted "more." From the orphanage to the mean streets of London, the ever-optimistic Oliver strives to survive through thick and thin. This proves no easy task as the boy encounters both saints and sinners on his journey. Dramatic, engagingly powerful and ultimately uplifting, OLIVER! is an unforgettable story of a remarkable boy looking for a place to call home.

The Walnut's all-new production of Oliver! opened November 18, and will run through January 10, 2010 on the Walnut Street Theatre mainstage. The production is part of Walnut's 201st season. Tickets are available now by subscription. Please contact 215-574-3550, ext. 6 for more information (10am-4pm). You can also subscribe online 24/7 by visiting


Photo - Hugh Panaro (Fagin) and Ensemble - by Mark Garvin, courtesey of the Walnut Street Theatre

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