BWW Review: OLIVER! Glorious OLIVER! at The Belmont
When Charles Dickens wrote his novel OLIVER TWIST, he certainly had no idea that he was creating what's become one of England's and America's most popular musicals. Lionel Bart took the book, added music and lyrics, creating OLIVER! with a collection of songs that you definitely know even if you didn't know they were from the show, and opened first in the West End and then on Broadway in 1963. Between the West End and David Merrick's Broadway production, a slew of awards were won that have only increased with each revival. The 1968 film production with which even more people are familiar took home six Oscars and is itself a classic.
On stage at the Belmont Theatre in York, in Artistic Director Rene Staub's hands, the show is bright, colorful, and filled with good cheer, exactly as Bart intended, which is not quite so much how Dickens himself intended it. The sets are neatly designed with some of Staub's best projection work, the sepia tones of the original Broadway production are used lavishly, and the stage is filled with the children of the poorhouse and of Fagin's den of juvenile thieves.
One of the great difficulties of OLIVER! is that the lead must be a juvenile triple threat who's not trying to be over-mature, or a young actor who can convincingly play even younger. If you don't have the right lead, you don't have a show that works. The Belmont is fortunate to have Rowan Barber, who already distinguished himself as Gavroche in the Belmont's LES MISERABLES. A great Gavroche doesn't mean a fine Oliver Twist, but Barber's a delight here as well as in the Hugo classic. From Oliver's infamous "Please, sir" through "Where is Love" and "Who Will Buy" to the end, Barber's able to keep the misadventurous mite ducking, running, scrambling, and twisting his way through pickpocketing, kidnapping, gin-swilling, and finding his family.
Then there's Jack Watkins, or the Artful Dodger, leader of one of the show's biggest ensemble numbers, "Consider Yourself." Belmont veteran (and now professional actor) Jacob Schmitt brings some of the Dodger's artfulness to his own acting, as he's become an actor it's a pleasure to keep your eye on throughout a production. The musical's Dodger isn't the overly mature young'un of Dickens' tale, but far more chipper, and Schmitt allows us, through his skills, to always look at the bright side of crime.
But it's the scoutmaster of thievery, Fagin, who truly makes the story come to life, and Jack Gilbert walks away with the show as the leader of the motley boy band of thieves. (Speaking of boy bands, add this to your favorite theatre trivia: later Monkee, Davy Jones, played the Dodger on Broadway.) Gilbert's a total joy in this role, merrily chomping at the scenery with such panache that you want to feed him another prop yourself just for the fun of it. Whether he's making love to a stolen pearl necklace or stashing his belongings, separating quarrelling lovers or finding dinner for the his brigade of baby brigands, Gilbert rules the show from his first moment on stage to his last, and most of the audience appears to be telling director Staub, "We want some more Fagin" at every scene change. Fagin's songs, "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Reviewing the Situation" are highlights of the show, and the audiences are clearly hooked.
OLIVER! is one of the musicals so classic that its libretto is known to people who have never seen the show. "Food, Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself," "Oom-Pah-Pah," "Who Will Buy," recorded by Barbra Streisand, and tavern girl Nancy's "As Long as He Needs Me," which has become a staple cabaret number, are themselves a solid third of the show.
What's forgotten about OLIVER! is that it can be bright and cheerful while maintaining the dark underbelly of lower class Victorian London that Dickens documented. There's a quite bawdy scene between the poorhouse cook and the beadle, strong hints that Nancy (here played by Erin Kelly, who has a marvelous voice) is either a thief, a prostitute, or both, besides working at the tavern, there's ample domestic violence, both between Bill Sykes (Brian Gilbert) and Nancy and between the cook and the beadle. While the show contains a large and talented children's ensemble, and while it's a classic that we think is great for children, do consider that those moments appear, and realize you should probably talk to your children about inter-gender violence. Its presence in the show is crucial (and unlike CAROUSEL it's not glorified), but we need to remind our children that it's wrong.
Keep your eye peeled and your ears open not just for Erin Kelly's Nancy but for Katie Latta from Mechanicsburg, who appears as Nancy's friend Bet. She's already trained with Julliard, she's got a voice that won't quit, she makes a mountain of a small part, and she's fourteen. If you see her now, chances are you'll be saying "I saw her when" some time in the future.
Consider yourself at home at the Belmont mainstage with this production.
At The Belmont Theatre in York through the 26th and a great way to wind up your Thanksgiving. Visit thebelmont.org for tickets and information.