BWW Review: OLIVER! is the Show, Glorious Show at EPAC
If there is any Victorian novelist who was by no means dry to modern readers, it's certainly Charles Dickens, whose stories are still filmed and put on stage regularly. There are reasons, obviously. His characters are vividly drawn, his plots draw the reader into them, and for someone who was paid by the word, his stories are highly readable. They're also easy to stage with the narration and the description given, and they're intriguing. Which, quite naturally, brings us to his novel OLIVER TWIST. Children! Workhouse evils! Slavery! Criminals! Criminal lairs! Dens of iniquity! Missing relatives! Who needs to watch GOTHAM? Lionel Bart knew that when he put it on the West End in 1960, and David Merrick knew it when he brought it to Broadway in 1963. The film version, one of the better adaptations of a musical to film, won six Oscars on top of the nine Tony nominations (with three wins) that the musical received on Broadway.
The stage musical, Lionel Bart's OLIVER!, is on stage at Eprhata Performing Arts Center, directed by Tricia Corcoran, and if you have young sons or grandsons, it's the show to lure them into loving theatre, because there are plenty of boys their age on that stage who know that dancing, singing, and playing ragamuffin street urchins are among the most fun that can be had. Meanwhile, there's plenty of adult villainy for them to hiss and boo at - and you'll hiss and boo, too, because Bart wisely gave the show a bit of British vaudeville flair at various points. And why not? There's Mr. Bumble, the disreputable and child-selling beadle, played with zest by Joe Myering, and the plump, buxom, and surprisingly domineering Widow Corney, who's brought to deliciously funny life by EPAC regular Elizabeth Pattey. There's the mean-spirited funeral director and his wife, played by Carl Bomberger and Karey Getz to great effect, and then there are the real adult villains.
Preston Schreffler does a delightful job as the elderly criminal and child keeper Fagin, and he is particularly great in his two major songs, "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Reviewing the Situation". Fagin is clearly Jewish in the original novel, and even Dickens himself was afraid he'd created an anti-Semitic portrayal and cut back on references in reprints of the story, but the problems are sanitized in OLIVER! - at least until you get to "Reviewing the Situation," a number so full of Yiddishkeit in its music and lyrics that it could fit in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, yet it doesn't portray Fagin as an "evil Jew" but as an elderly criminal concerned with a bountiful retirement stash of stolen jewelry and how to put his retirement to best effect. (If you didn't know from the novel that Fagin was supposed to be evil, you'd think he was your slightly odd uncle Moishe debating moving to Florida.)
Bill Sykes, the violent and undoubtably evil villain of the piece, is Jeff Fisher, who makes sure Sykes doesn't have a nice bone in his body. One of the difficult themes in the show is that he's abusive on stage to the unfortunately adoring Nancy, played with real feeling by Kristie Ohlinger. As someone who can't stomach the "domestic violence is okay" message of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL, the story of Bill and Nancy in OLIVER! Is particularly uncomfortable for this author, who finds it harder to watch on stage than to read in the book. While it gives Ohlinger the chance to do an admirable performance of one of the show's signature numbers, "As Long as He Needs Me," and while it makes Sykes' reprehensible character clear, it's nonetheless hard to watch these days.
Ethan Reimel deserves props galore as Jack Dawkins, the young man better known as The Artful Dodger. He's a fine younger actor, and he and Oliver, ably played by Aleko Zeppos, deliver a rousing "Consider Yourself," one of the show's best-known numbers.
Zeppos, who received a great deal of note last year for his Gavroche in LES MISERABLES, proves here that he's a solid juvenile lead who can handle the emotional spectrum with confidence. It will be interesting to see how he and his work continue to develop. His performance of "Who Will Buy" is solid and moving.
The show also contains some fine ensemble numbers, and the audience seemed particularly appreciative of the popular opening number, "Food, Glorious Food," performed by the workhouse children, as well as the ensemble portion of "Consider Yourself."
There are no two ways about it; OLIVER!, while enjoyable, is a vague sugar coating of a sordid story; Dickens was pulling characters and situations from Victorian life here, as he did in much of his writing, and he was drawn to the strong themes of his day - workhouses, street crime, child exploitation, violence against women, and other similar matters. The show doesn't veer much from its source in that regard. Victorian London was not altogether a world of fashionably dressed women having tea parties, or Sherlock Holmes deducing solutions to criminal puzzles from his sitting room. Moments of the show may make you wonder if times have really changed at all. But there's a somewhat happy ending, albeit a contrived one, that you can see coming at the beginning of the second act and that doesn't disappoint. It is, after all, Dickens.
At EPAC through the 17th, and great fun. Visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets and information.