BWW Reviews: Trinity Rep Impresses with Outstanding OLIVER!
Trinity Repertory Company's Oliver! is one of the finest and most memorable theatrical productions of Rhode Island's 2013-14 season. TRC has a bona fide hit on its hands with its talented song-and-dance performers, atmospheric sets and lighting effects, and smart direction by Richard and Sharon Jenkins.
Oliver!, based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, is not a relentlessly frothy, bubbly show for all of its high-stepping dance numbers and large children's cast. Instead, the overall narrative strikes an ideal balance between childhood innocence and the gritty, often terrifying realities of poverty and starvation in Victorian London.
Like most all of Dickens' other works, Oliver Twist wraps strong social commentary in a finely-wrought plot filled with colorful characters. This well-known stage adaptation by Lionel Bart takes Dickens' message to heart and translates the novelist's societal observations in story and song. For example, many of the show's most popular musical numbers - such as "Food, Glorious Food," "Boy for Sale," "Where is Love?" and "As Long as He Needs Me" - highlight the novel's key themes of poverty, starvation, child abuse, and domestic abuse. Setting these most serious issues to song makes them all-the-more unforgettable when the final curtain falls.
The child and adult actors mingle seamlessly on stage, often sharing the same complex choreography and vocally-demanding songs. This collaboration further underscores the notion that the horrible living conditions of the Victorian poor and the utter desperation born of true deprivation know no age limits. The children of poverty learned the cruelest lessons of starvation and violence as thoroughly as the weathered prostitutes and conmen that populated the London streets in Dickens' day.
The strength of Trinity's production is in its utterly outstanding company, and right from the start, the children's cast turns in a polished, totally-engaged and professional performance. These youngsters - Alexander LeBlanc, Lily McMahon, Samia Nash, Emma Senerchia, Eva Senerchia, Tara Sullivan, and Benjamin Thornton - bring great energy to the stage and they hold their own with the seasoned company members in each and every scene.
Phineas Peters and Noah Parets headline the children's cast as the titular Oliver Twist and his London chum, The Artful Dodger. The two boys are wonderful on stage together and their interactions - especially their introduction leading into the show-stopping number "Consider Yourself" - are playful and endearing.
Peters projects an air of unfeigned innocence as Oliver, but he also has a twinkle of good-natured mischievousness about him. His is the character to experience the most notable changes, and Peters subtly matures Oliver both through his encounters with unsavory gents and would-be saviors, and through his role as first-hand witness to the play's most scarring tragedies. Peters also deftly manages a number of physically-demanding scenes, from being bodily tossed about by adult characters to being claustrophobically closed inside a trunk.
Parets fills the Dodger's shoes to a T; he has the swagger and conceit of a self-styled gentleman conman and all the childhood charm he needs to make these dubious traits thoroughly winning to an audience. Parets shines as a remarkably talented dancer and impressively performs several intricate pieces of choreography and character-building tap routines.
Rachael Warren is utterly delightful from her first appearance on stage as the kind-hearted Nancy. Warren brings great conviction to her character's determination to find small joys and goodness in the world, even as Nancy suffers through the most unforgiving realities of the gin-soaked and poverty-laden slums of London. Warren has especially smart rapport with the children in the cast, and she clearly paints Nancy as a mothering figure in the young urchins' lives.
Though Nancy is levelheaded about the limitations of her lot, her one blind spot is her steadfast love for the brutish Bill Sikes. Warren so fully inhabits Nancy's denial about Sikes' abusive nature - especially in her powerhouse performance of Nancy's signature song "As Long as He Needs Me" - that the character's ill-considered decisions have audience members literally groaning aloud in despair.
Stephen Berenson is covetousness personified as Fagan, the ringleader of a gang of pick-pocketing children. Berenson brings plenty of character and comedy to the stage as Fagan flirts with the role of gentleman thief. Though Berenson's Fagan genuinely seems to care for the children in his unsavory employ, his overwhelming love of personal possessions drowns out his moral dilemma again and again. The song "Reviewing the Situation" delves into this dichotomy, giving Berenson a much-deserved spotlight to revel in his character's idiosyncrasies.
Tom Gleadow and Anne Scurria are excellent as Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney, the neglectful duo who run Oliver's orphanage. Their unlikely courtship and short-lived honeymoon provide some of the funniest moments in the production, and Gleadow and Scurria are flawless scene partners. Chris Turner's musical cameos are charming and add dimension to the overall presentation as well.
The infamous Bill Sikes is brought chillingly to life by Timothy John Smith. Smith's tall and burly frame well-suits the character physically (he easily lifts Peters above his head with one hand), but his performance skills - especially perfecting the cold, heartless glare in his eyes - truly draw out Sikes' menace and danger. Smith also proves a talented singer, giving a solid vocal performance of "My Name."
Lighting cues, creative blocking, and a series of trapdoors are used to great effect in TRC's Oliver! Oliver's journey to London is hindered by the ghosts of his past (Bumble, Corney, and others bodily stand in for inclement weather conditions or tough passages on the road), and Sikes' first appearance finds him backlit in a doorframe and totally silent, establishing his threatening nature from the very start. Oliver's own view of the city - rose-colored after a fortunate encounter with the benevolent Mr. Brownlow - plays out in Disney-esque fashion with peddlers dancing in the street and tossing rose petals in the orphan's wake. But immediately after the lad exits the scene, the lighting dims ominously and the dancers slip into stylized altercations, their countenances becoming hardened, suspicious and cruel.
This dual symbolism plays out over and again in Oliver! and it makes a significant appearance as the story comes to an end. Though Oliver has witnessed terrible tragedy, his life and lot are set to greatly improve at the close of the show; the worst trials of his young life, it seems, are over. Yet rather than drawing the curtain on that uplifting note, Sharon and Richard Jenkins include a final image that makes a lingering and frankly powerful statement and returns to the heart of Dickens' novel. Oliver's adventures make for compelling fiction, but calling attention to the ongoing plight of the poor depicted on both the page and on stage is the real work of the narrative.
Oliver! plays Trinity Repertory Company's Elizabeth and Malcom Chace Theater through March 30, 2014. Tickets are available online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $28-$72; $15 general admission bench seating is also available.