★★★☆☆ - Satisfying
Consider yourself at home with Lionel Bart's classic musical based on Charles Dickens' novel, “Oliver Twist”. Signature Productions takes the audience on a wildly satisfying, Three-Star adventure through Victorian England.
Many have come to know the general story of Oliver Twist via the Tony and Olivier Award-winner which premiered in 1960 in London, and was made into a successful motion picture in 1968 -- one of the few musicals to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
The curtain opens on the multi-level interior of the workhouse with bare dining tables. Pale-faced wretches file in singing "Food, Glorious Food". Widow Corney, who runs the workhouse, and Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle (a minor parish officer dealing with petty offenders), enter to serve gruel to the boys. Alone amongst them, Oliver takes his bowl to Bumble and asks, "Please, Sir, I want some more." Bumble is so outraged that he parades Oliver through the streets of London singing "Boy For Sale." Oliver is sold to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker. Alone, plaintive and surrounded by coffins, Oliver sings, "Where Is Love?"
Oliver escapes to London and finds acceptance amongst a group of petty thieves and pickpockets led by the elderly Fagin. When Oliver is captured for a theft that he did not commit, the benevolent victim, Mr. Brownlow takes him in. Fearing the safety of his hideout, Fagin employs the sinister Bill Sikes and the sympathetic Nancy to kidnap him back, threatening Oliver’s chances of discovering the true love of a family.
As an orphan and a pauper, Oliver’s fate is more or less sealed from birth: social forces appear poised to keep him in a "low" position forever. But as it turns out, he is actually the lost relative of Mr. Brownlow, a middle class gentleman. The grand question is which fate will determine the course of Oliver's life: the fate of the pauper, or the fate of the gentleman? Oliver struggles to maintain his goodness against seemingly insurmountable odds, and manages to do so.
As a musical, Lionel Bart's work suffers from a skimpy book and lack of characterization. Yet it continues to flourish. Perhaps it is the sheer number of children who fill the stage in the opening number. Conceivably, it could also be those familiar songs like “Food, Glorious Food”, “Consider Yourself”, “It’s a Fine Life”, “I’d Do Anything”, and “Where Is Love”.
It is definitely the younger cast members that elevate this musical and save the day -- the struggling orphan boy, Oliver (played by Rowan Johns), and the roustabout troupe of vagabonds led by the delightfully spry Artful Dodger (Emily Anzell – a role alternately played by Ridge Bawden). Their youthful energy comes through in every song (under the able musical direction of Shauna Oblad) and dance (charmingly choreographed by Ashley Oblad).
Of course, there must be the contrast of the dark, seedy and tender side of Dicken’s tale, which is commendably carried by the primary adult characters: Fagin (artfully portrayed by Ariel Johnson), Nancy (charming in the person of Caitlin Shea), and Bill Sikes (whose most reprehensible and squalid spirit was admirably offered by James Claflin). Credible performances in supporting adult roles include: Jeremy Boaz (Mr. Bumble), Kathleen Etor (Mrs. Corney), Melissa Riezler (Mrs. Sowerberry), and Philip Robinson (Mr. Sowerberry, the Undertaker).
Under the experienced and skilled direction of Douglas H. Baker, the creative and production teams adeptly carried us into London and at least six interior settings and streetscapes across the North of England – with the multi-level set pieces seamlessly choreographed to shift from one location to another. Costumes designed by Roxanne Andrews and sound designed by Noah Goddard were well-suited to the period. Lighting effects often left crucial moments in the dark -- most notably the reprise of “Where Is Love” in the second act – but may have been the result of failures by follow spot operators rather than the design by Keannak Parvaz.