BWW Review: OLIVER! at Oyster Mill Playhouse
Many will know the story of Oliver from the classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. The musical Oliver! by Lionel Bart, first opened in the West End in 1960 and on Broadway in 1962. The show has been revived numerous times and, in 1968, it was adapted for the screen. For the sake of the stage version, the original story by Dickens was dramatically simplified and provides a rather different interpretation of the character of Fagin. The musical is particularly true to Dickens in its emphasis on class differences and prejudices related to class, while presenting the subject matter with a healthy dose of comedy. Oliver! can be seen on stage at Oyster Mill Playhouse from November 8-24. I was given a rare opportunity to have a sneak preview of the show during one of their dress rehearsals, and it is a show that you will want to make time for this month.
The set and costumes are particularly outstanding in this production. With a few small changes, they are able to transform the stage from a dreary boarding house to a wealthy man's house to Fagin's den of thieves. Kudos to set designer Ray Olewiler, Master Carpenter Joel Persing, and the set construction and painting team of Michael Hosler, Jason McQuiddy, Heather Jannetta, and Patrice Whitson for creating and building such a versatile set with realistic-looking cobblestones and bricks and a very useful trapdoor. While a couple of the set changes were a little longer than I might have liked, given the number of things they had to move through tight spaces, they did remarkably well, and those changes will likely get faster with more repetition. What really caught my attention right away were the costumes. Emma Garza and Keri Miller did an amazing job costuming the cast-it was easy to tell when actors were portraying a new character, and the costuming drove home the extreme difference between poor and rich that is a major theme in the show.
The show opens with the orphans marching onto stage to pick up their bowl and spoon for their gruel. The orphans, played by Brayden Abel (who also takes on the roles of Noah Claypole and Charley Bates), Derek Bolton (also seen in the role of Nipper), Isabella Curcio (who also portrays Captain), Carter McQuiddy (who really shines in his role as Artful Dodger), Sophia Zambotti (who also plays Charlotte and Bet), and James Sias as Oliver, start off the show with the perfect mix of dejection, despair, and longing as they sing "Food, Glorious Food". Debi Pristine (Matron, Workhouse Assistant, and Ensemble) and Giovanni Frontino (Book Seller, Bow Street Runner, Workhouse Assistant, and Ensemble), as the workhouse assistants, hand out the bowls, spoons, and gruel with appropriate drudgery. The opening song sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the show.
James O'Dell, Larissa Curcio, Alexis Neel, and Molly Sias each also play multiple roles, showing off tremendous versatility in their acting. Larissa Curcio, Alexis Neel, Molly Sias, and Marc Lubbers have gorgeous harmonies on the song "Who Will Buy". Molly Sias begins the song, and her voice is so beautiful and sweet and she sings it with such longing that it almost brought me to tears. When the rest of the quartet of vendors join in the music just soars. Their vocal performance in that song made me wish there were more opportunities for them to sing together in the show.
Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble are among the most comedic of the characters in the show, and Melissa Rosenfeld and Marc Lubbers play the roles delightfully well. Rosenfeld and Lubbers both have beautiful strong voices that are well matched to one another and their comedic timing is brilliant. While both characters are rather distasteful for how they treat the children and for their obsession with money, the audience will not be able to help but laugh at their antics-some may even be able to identify couples they know who engage in similar repartee.
Carina Bolton and Joseph Osborne play opposite one another as Mrs. and Mr. Sowerberry and as Mrs. Bedwin and Mr. Brownlow. Bolton is particularly entrancing as Mrs. Sowerberry, the overbearing, slightly creepy, overdramatic undertaker's wife. Her performance in "That's Your Funeral" is hysterical and shows off her vocal talents well. Osborne, while humorous in his role as the often-drunk and hen-pecked Mr. Sowerberry is especially well-suited for his role as the wealthy, mild-mannered Mr. Brownlow. His emotion in his scenes as Mr. Brownlow will tug at the audience's heartstrings and have them rooting for Mr. Brownlow and Oliver.
Fagin's band of merry thieves, who all appear as orphans in the first scene, are fun to watch, especially in the song "Consider Yourself". Carter McQuiddy plays Artful Dodger with just the right amount of swagger, ego, and playfulness. He has a voice bigger than he is, and he knows how to use it well. McQuiddy easily made Artful Dodger one of my favorite characters of the performance. The leader of the thieves, Fagin, is played by Matthew Stewart. Stewart's Fagin is funny, endearing, and sympathetic while still coming across as underhanded and sleezy. He uses his posture, gestures, and movement to bring Fagin to life. His performance of "Reviewing the Situation" comes across as genuine and relatable, and the way in which he relates to the young thieves in his care is strangely heartwarming.
When we meet Fagin, we also meet Bet, Nancy, and Bill Sikes. Sophia Zambotti is adorable as Bet, the younger sister of Nancy. Erin Kelly is inspiring in her role as Nancy. She is feisty and tough but compassionate. Kelly's voice is just as strong as her character's personality and has a lovely clear tone. Her performance of "As Long as He Needs Me" is overflowing with raw emotion and power. Bill Sikes, the real villain of the story, is portrayed by Matthew Robinson. Robinson is truly menacing in his role, and his interactions with Kelly's Nancy and Stewart's Fagin are complex and terrifying. The scene where Nancy tries to help Oliver escape is very well coordinated, and the tension between Nancy and Bill Sikes is palpable, bringing the scene to its terrible climax.
Finally, James Sias takes on the title role of Oliver Twist. Sias has a clear, sweet voice that shines in "Where is Love". He handles difficult blocking well, especially in the many chase scenes. What really brings his character to life, though, is his ability to portray a wide range of emotions, from anger at Noah Claypole when he denigrates his dead mother to loneliness and despair when he sings "Where is Love" to happiness when he finds a friend in Artful Dodger to fear when he is being kidnapped by Bill Sikes. Through his facial expressions and posture, Sias is able to take the audience on an emotional journey with Oliver.
My only disappointment was that I had difficulty hearing Sophia Zambotti on her solo lines as Bet and Joseph Osborne on some of his more emotional lines; however, I have no doubt that by opening night this sound balance will be worked out. The entire cast's diction during the songs is extremely impressive, as are their accents. It is not an easy thing to make yourself understood when using an accent that is not your own, and the cast of Oliver! at Oyster Mill make it look and sound easy. The cast and crew do an amazing job at bringing the characters of Oliver! to life and bringing the audience into the story.
This classic tale still speaks to audiences today with its exploration of classism, friendship, and family. It's the perfect show to enjoy as we head into the holiday season, so don't miss your chance. Pick up your tickets at www.oystermill.com.