Oliver is good family fun.
Thursday, August 29, 2002
Photo by Mark Feldstein.
Photo: Partners In Crime-Bill Sykes (Keith Decker) and Bullseye (below right) are dark counterpoints to Fagin (Michael Jacobs) and his thieving boys (left).
Charles Dickens would have torn out his hair had he seen how Oliver Twist, his dark tale of life in London''s grotty East End had been sweetened up for the Broadway stage show Oliver. Nevertheless, the show has by now become a standard in the American musical repertoire. Pacific Repertory Theater''s revival of its 1997 production of the play is charming. While little remains of Dickens'' biting satire, Oliver provides a fine way to spend an evening with the family under the stars at Carmel''s historic Outdoor Forest Theater.
Some of the numbers strain credulity-for example, the murderous thug Bill Sykes singing about his fearsome name instead of bashing people''s heads in-but audiences are asked to suspend disbelief at far more unlikely spectacles in musical theater, and the songs in this play are so wonderful that we''ll accept, for art''s sake, the sight of 40 starving orphans literally singing for their supper.
By the way, this number-"Food Glorious Food," which opens the play-is simply delightful. When those scores of urchins came marching onstage, wooden bowls in hand, and lined up by height to receive their pitiful portions of gruel, before tapping their spoons in time to the music, hearts were melting up and down the Forest Theater benches.
The kids'' singing and dancing is spot-on, a remarkable feat considering some of them looked no older than five or six. In fact, the group numbers in this production are consistently strong, and kudos must go to director Walt deFaria and choreographer Laura Akard for pulling that off.
The lead role of Oliver Twist is double-cast, as it''s quite demanding for a child to perform night after night. Eleven-year-old Allyson Spiegelman played it the evening I saw the show, and her melancholy, slightly pinched face and startlingly lovely voice give the role its needed pathos. Dickens'' character represents the Victorian age''s iconic view of the purity of (aristocratic) childhood, and Allyson mostly just has to stand there and look the part, which she does. Her singing of "Where is Love" is beautiful.
J.T. Holmstrom, familiar to local audiences for his Captain Hook in Pac Rep''s 2000 and 2001 productions of Peter Pan, here reprises his 1997 appearance as Mr. Bumble, and I want to thank Pac Rep for bringing him back. His fussbudget, bumbling, ridiculously haughty portrayal of the fawning bureaucrat placed in charge of the boys'' workhouse is terrific, and his dainty dancing in "I Shall Scream" is side-splittingly funny.
Sam Given, a sophomore at Robert Louis Stevenson School who appeared as one of Fagin''s boys in 1997, is a sprightly Artful Dodger, displaying great attitude. Michael Jacobs, reprising his 1997 role of Fagin, is even better this time around. He plays Fagin with a light touch, carefully avoiding Yiddish stereotypes, revealing Fagin''s fondness for his boys as well as the avarice that ultimately drives him. Jacobs doesn''t do many musicals, and I always forget what a fine voice he has.
Of all the lead performances, that of Sasha Motalygo as Nancy, the quintessential whore with a heart of gold, is especially noteworthy. Not only does she have a magnificent voice, her passion and verve drive every scene in which she appears. She is a lusty, earthy Nancy, utterly believable while playing a difficult "type."
"As Long As He Needs Me," Nancy''s heartfelt declaration of fierce love, was a real show-stopper.
Keith Decker, as Nancy''s boyfriend Bill Sykes, needs to bring his performance up a notch to match her fire. His portrayal of East London''s most notorious psychopath was too mannered, not nearly menacing enough.
Set designer Jean Francois Revon came up with a somewhat Cubist interpretation of late 19th-century London, which conveyed the right atmosphere with a modicum of fuss, as did R.J. Woffrod''s lighting. Tandy Messenger did a good job costuming more than 80 actors, especially the urchins in their ragtag flood pants and platinum blond fright wigs.
The second act of this production dragged a bit, after a rousing first act, but all in all this is a fine Oliver, and well worth the effort of packing the kids into the station wagon. This production could turn Dickens himself into a fan of musicals.
Oliver plays at the Outdoor Forest Theater until Sept. 22.