BWW Review: Punchy Characters And Catchy Tunes Carry The Show In OLIVER!

Kathryn Porterfield and Caleb Donahoe

Based on the iconic novel by Charles Dickens, OLIVER! is a musical that takes on the age-old theme of innocence in the midst of poverty and abuse. Dickens was a master at this theme, having also famously penned David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol. This is the story of an orphan, Oliver Twist, who falls into one scrape after another, bumping into the various class distinctions of London, as he yearns for a real home and real love. From the orphanage, to the undertaker's house, to Fagan's den of thieves, Oliver is faced with challenges no child should ever have to tangle with.

Unlike the book, OLIVER! the musical is art with an identity crises. Take pieces of Les Miserable, Annie, Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, Newsies, and Sweeney Todd, and then add a dash of Mary Poppins and you can envision the mishmash smorgasbord that is OLIVER! This is a show that has sweet-looking orphans singing about food in one act and a homicidal villain on a vicious rampage in the next. Some would say that Lionel Bart created a musical that tried to cast a lot of lightness against Dickens' dark and desperate writings. But does it work? There are many times when the show creates some mood-based whiplash.

In this Theatre Under The Stars production, the orphans lack a certain edgy despair. In "Food, Glorious Food" the orphans wear matching outfits of lavender trousers with light tees and cardigans. They look more "Gap ad" than street urchin. Oliver's hair looks like he just stepped out of a Supercuts, shining, and freshly-cut. I would've liked to have seen more dirty desperation. When The Artful Dodger, played winningly by Caleb Donahoe, gives a supposedly starving Oliver a bread roll, he merely picks at it as though he is still full from dinner. I want to see dirty, dejected kids, stuffing bread rolls in their faces! The orphans were too clean, too tame, and too cute. As an audience we want to ache for them, but it's hard when they don't seem to be aching much themselves. Christopher Wolff gives a passive, low-energy performance as Oliver Twist. While Oliver is supposed to be generally meek, there are many moments in the show when anger, dejection, or yearning is called for, and we don't see these emotions from the young actor.

James Leo Ryan as Fagan and OLIVER! cast members

Directed by Bruce Lumpkin, the collection of bawdy, earthy supporting characters saves the stage adaptation, providing something to really sink your teeth into when the rest of the show falls a little flat. Brian Ray Norris (Mr. Bumble) and Barbara Marineau (Widow Corney) play their roles with punchy fun and excellent singing. Dylan Godwin is a Tim Burton dream as the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, and Gayton Scott is a great, campy weirdo as his wife, Mrs. Sowerberry. James Leo Ryan portrays Fagan as an unhinged, mercurial patriarch, a departure from the evil, scary Fagan of Oliver Twist, but it works because Ryan is deeply entrenched in the character. Kathryn Porterfield is an excellent Nancy, beguiling the audience from the minute she steps onstage with her raw energy and plucky femininity. It is refreshing to hear a gorgeous alto voice in the role of a heroine and Porterfield is a joy to listen to. Nathaniel Hackmann plays the abusive bully Bill Sykes with brooding effectiveness. The wealthy benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, is well-cast with David Sitler, a welcome and calming presence onstage.

Lionel Bart's tunes are catchy and moving; classic Broadway songs that have been around for what seems like forever. "That's Your Funeral" is gothic irreverence at it's best, "Boy For Sale" is appropriately moody and mournful, Porterfield's "As Long As He Needs Me" arguably brings the house down, and "It's A Fine Life" is raucous and colorful. "Oom-Pah-Pah" swings the second act into place with a carousing bar scene lead by Porterfield. "Who Will Buy" is absolutely lovely, with villagers wistfully trying to eke out a living. James Leo Ryan performs the comedic "Reviewing The Situation" with Fagan's unbalanced and eccentric charm.

It's a production full of strong singer-actors and high production values, but watching OLIVER! is kind of like getting on a roller coaster that thinks it's a merry-go-round. You're never sure how you're supposed to feel about the ride.

For Tickets:

OLIVER! runs from April 5 - April 17.

Photo Credit: Christian Brown

Related Articles View More Houston Stories   Shows

From This Author Jenny Taylor Moodie

Before you go...

Never Miss a Story
Like Us On Facebook
Follow Us On Twitter
Follow Us On Instagram instagram