PacRep’s Oliver! is a booming and ambitious summertime success.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (full title: Oliver Twist or, The Parish Boy’s Progress) chronicles the adventures of an orphan waif child trying to survive – and keep some semblance of morality – in the mean realities of industrial England. It is, specifically, a caustic attack on England’s New Poor Law, which channeled at-risk youth into forced labor or crime; but broadly, it’s a condemnation of societal injustice and human cruelty.
Doesn’t sound like a fun read, does it? Much less a fun musical. But Dickens, wisely, sweetened the indignation with dark humor, twisty dynamics and distinct characters – spoonful of sugar-like. For his 1960 musical, Lionel Bart upped the sugar content with ridiculously catchy tunes. It’s a delightfully dark satire, a sterling protest musical, and irresistible entertainment to everyone from children to elderlies – probably the reason PacRep has staged the Tony Award-winner for Best Original Score three times in 12 years.
A few things about this year’s production: It’s big. It casts about 100 people – two busloads of kids – who fill the stage with overwhelming ensemble choruses. Though big, it’s nimble. Working with that small parade of kids might seem daunting, but director/choreographer Katie O’Bryon has them weaving around the sets, scrambling and scampering, dancing and marching.
Two child actors alternate in the role of Oliver (fortunately, not in the same performance): Laine Aswad and Ben Phillips. They are both versed in theatre, both having played, among other roles, Michael in Peter Pan. Aswad, however, is a girl. I did not know that. That fact is easily overlooked because she’s good – and a kid, and well-costumed – and the titular role is relatively minor, with fewer solos and lines than others, specifically, the miserly, conniving ringleader of orphan thieves, Fagin (masterly actor-in-residence Michael D. Jacobs), and the lusty, big-hearted pub wench, Nancy (Erica Racz, who, fittingly, cares for animals at Parkview Veterinary Hospital).
That’s in keeping with Dickens’ bigger landscape painting of society’s ills; so really, Oliver is like a mirror, reflecting each character’s true character.
Kids adore Oliver! But, as Disney has learned, if you can delight kids and adults in the same show, you’re on to something. And the kids and adults at the Outdoor Forest Theater, during an evening preview and a Sunday matinee, ate up the finely crafted – and sophisticated – song and dance.
How can you not when you start with a showstopper of a song in “Food, Glorious Food,” but can come back with other evocative songs that stand up to that children’s chorus powerhouse? “I Shall Scream,” a comic courtship duet between the blowhard Mr. Bumble (Ken Cusson, cartoonishly good), and the workhouse matron Mrs. Corney (a feisty Nancy Williams) is cute. But the uptempo dirge “That’s Your Funeral,” by the undertaker couple the Soweberrys, is darkly, complexly clever – Tim Burton must love this number.
The costuming is amazing, and high schooler Lana Richards, as Nancy’s friend Bets, is a portentously good singer. Nancy’s strongest number, “It’s a Fine Life,” shines with optimism and lust for life against the grimy urban backdrop. Its flipside in Act 2, “It’s a Fine Life (Reprise),” is an angry refutation of that griminess and Racz roars the opening lines: “Some living, SOME LIVING!” And, if she hadn’t before, she wins you instantly with it. “I’d Do Anything” is such a fun song (Jay-Z even sampled it in 1998) that director O’Bryon reprises it for the finale with the entire cast. It echoes in the head while leaving the idyllic theater, and happily resides there for a long time thereafter.
OLIVER! plays 7:30pm Fri-Sat and 2pm Sun, to Sept. 27, at the Outdoor Forest Theater, Santa Rita and Mountain View, Carmel. $28-$35/adult; $22-$26/senior; $12-$15/student, military, teacher; $7/child 12 and under. 622-0100, www.pacrep.org