Story: Young Oliver Twist survives on gruel and grit at a London orphanage workhouse in the mid-19th century. When he’s sold by overbearing beadle Mr. Bumble to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, Oliver is forced to sleep in a casket. After he gets into a fight with Sowerberry’s apprentice, he escapes into the streets of London.
The intrepid lad is befriended by an amiable young chap who calls himself The Artful Dodger. Oliver is escorted by the Dodger to the lair of Fagin, a mentor of sorts who teaches young boys “how to pick a pocket or two.” Oliver fits right in with Fagin and his lads, not realizing at first that they are thieves.
Eventually he is caught by a gentleman who is targeted by Dodger, Oliver and Charlie Bates. Oliver is taken into custody by the man, Mr. Brownlow, who takes a liking to him and eventually becomes his benefactor. And much more, in fact, as Oliver’s back story is gradually revealed.
Highlights: Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, initially was published in installments from 1837 to 1839. Like many of Dickens’ stories, it painted an unflattering portrait of social injustice in 19th century England, focusing on child labor and children forced into criminal activities.
In 1960, Lionel Bart adapted the sprawling saga into a musical that opened in London’s West End and ran for 2,618 performances, featuring a young lad named Davy Jones (later of The Monkees) as The Artful Dodger. By necessity, Bart’s book compressed Dickens’ lengthy novel, and his music and lyrics won the Tony Award for Best Original Score when Oliver! made its Broadway debut in 1962.
Other Info: Insight Theatre has opened its seventh season with a large cast filling the spacious Heagney Theatre stage at Nerinx Hall High School, where Insight performs.
While ambitious and well-intentioned, this particular production is shaggy stuff for the most part. Too often it lacks an identity or seemingly a purpose of what it is intended to be, making for an unfulfilling evening. All of the elements are there for an entertaining experience, but somehow the opening night presentation never really ignited, moving forward fitfully and uncertainly.
Director Edward Coffield in his program notes falls back on the familiar refrain often referenced by directors that a particular production is ‘timely’ or ‘contemporary,’ in this case because of “the excesses of a free market and the ways that can corrupt people.” Really, though, doesn’t that apply to any era in the history of civilization (at least the corruption part)? One can cite examples of humanity’s baser instincts pretty much at any point along the evolutionary trail.
When done well, Oliver! doesn’t need to reference contemporary America in order to succeed. Bart’s lyrics and music remain wonderful more than 50 years after he first composed them. Catchy, memorable tunes abound, from Consider Yourself and You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two to I’d Do Anything and Who Will Buy? and even the humorous Food, Glorious Food that starts it all.
Unfortunately, early mic problems hindered the opening night performance with both musical numbers and dialogue. That wasn’t the problem in Act II with the limp rendition of Who Will Buy?, which lacked the vivacity and accompanying optimism one may be accustomed to hearing.
The true strength of Insight’s Oliver! is a superior set designed by Margery and Peter Spack that references the original, Tony Award-winning design by Sean Kenny. It’s a massive back wall with period graffiti and a steampunk-looking appearance that passes suitably for mid-19th century London, utilizing a second-story walkway where villainous Bill Sykes can throttle his ill-fated lover Nancy.
It’s beautifully illuminated, too, by Seth Jackson, with shards of light poring through holes that can accentuate characters decked out in Laura Hanson’s delightful costumes (and a bit of garish eye makeup for Mr. Sowerberry, to boot).
What doesn’t work are some musical numbers featuring choreography by James Compton and Libby Salvia that include the dour Mr. Sowerberry romping along with street urchins and poverty-stricken types. Really?
Charlie Mueller provides musical direction that often comes to a thud after a number is completed, with awkward silence as the segue to the next scene. Oh, well, the spirit is willing.
Best of the performances is a sparkling turn by Jennifer Theby-Quinn as the scheming matron, Mrs. Corney. Theby-Quinn moves ever so decrepitly as she plays the flirt with the bombastic Mr. Bumble, essayed here by Marc Strathman. And Alan Knoll brings an understated, princely subtlety to the role of Fagin, subduing any hint of anti-Semitic undertones to the Jewish lord of street crime.
Others in the cumbersome cast include Mara Bollini as Old Sally, Michael Brightman as Sowerberry and Jenni Ryan as Mrs. Sowerberry, Amelia Jo Parish as their daughter Charlotte and Daniel Blackwell as the cowardly apprentice Noah. Charlie Southern is Charlie Bates, Fiona Martin is Nancy’s pal Bet, Troy Turnipseed is the benign Mr. Brownlow, Ari Axelrod is the doddering Dr. Grimwig and Laura Ernst is Brownlow’s kindly servant Mrs. Bedwin.
Young Ronan Ryan makes his debut in the title role with an endearing presence, although obviously his voice needs to strengthen and develop. Broadway star Spencer David Milford brings considerable charm and charisma to The Artful Dodger, but his big first number, Consider Yourself, is painful to hear because he sounds like it’s not performed in his register.
Michael Amoroso simply doesn’t project the menace of the evil Bill Sykes, while Cherlynn Alvarez sings nicely as Nancy but seems a bit lonely after finishing her number, As Long As He Needs Me.
Coffield is a fine director, but in this case there doesn’t appear to be the guidance needed to steer such a large cast, especially lots of kids, in the right direction. Perhaps this Oliver! will improve with later performances. Otherwise, the audience might be imploring, “Please, sir, can we not have more?”
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue
Dates: June 11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $15-$30; contact 556-1293 or insighttheatrecompany.com
Rating: A 2.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb