The dark and dingy streets of Victorian London and the hard life that faces those without the benefit of family pedigree or fortune are splendidly recreated in Ivoryton Playhouse's entertaining production of Oliver!, Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist."
Scenic Designer Cully Long uses drab wood and muted colors (accented by splendid period costumes by LisaMarie Harry) to create a set that is at once mood setting and practical. Planks are borrowed from their position in the set to become parts of tables, coffins and props for choreography (by Kelly Shook), who keeps it the movement simple to get the best out of the very large, mostly non-Equity ensemble. R. Bruce Connelly uses the multiple levels incorporated in Long's set to produce a bustling panorama of London street life, or the more intimate setting of the room in a house.
Oliver! Follows the story of Oliver Twist (Tyler Felson), an orphan who causes a stir at the workhouse when the starving boy dares to ask caretaker Mr. Bumble (Michael Cartwright) for more food. He and his cohort, Mrs. Corney (Maureen Pollard) sell the boy into service with creepy undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (a wickedly funny Robert Boardman who continually measures his annoying wife, played by Tara Michelle Gesling, for a coffin). They and their daughter, Charlotte (Chloe Michelle Kounadis) treat him cruelly and when shop employee Noah Claypole (Sam Schrader) insults Oliver's mother, he sorrowfully asks, "Where is Love?"
He runs from them into the hands of the Artful Dodger (an engaging Nathan J. Russo making an impressive acting debut), a young master pickpocket, who lives on the streets with a lot of other boys who steal handkerchiefs, wallets and jewelry. Russo does a nice job with "Consider Yourself." Their protector is Fagin (Neal Mayer), who teaches Oliver the tricks of their trade.
Mayer, who returns to The Playhouse on the heels of a notable performance as Wilbur in Hairspray, steals the show again with a comical take on Fagin which almost makes him sympathetic and likable. Also turning in strong performances are T. J. Mannix as brutal burglar Bill Sykes and Kimberly Morgan as his abused wife, Nancy, who help in Fagin's underhanded business. Mannix was so villainous in his portrayal that he received a hearty round of boos at the curtain call.
Morgan, who also appeared in Hairspray at The Playhouse as one of the Dynamites, takes center stage here as a very strong Nancy. Usually it's hard to find sympathy for this character. After her husband beats her, she sings, "As Long As He Needs Me," an infuriating ballad about how she will continue to love him no matter what. You want to go up on stage and shake her. But here, thanks to Morgan's more robust, self-assured rendition of the character, we get a sense that she's not stupid, that she understands what she is saying, but is just determined. I might not agree with her choice to stay with rotten Bill, but at least I have a better understanding of why she has made it. That's quite an accomplishment and hasn't happened in any other performance of Nancy I have seen.
When Oliver is caught trying to pick a pocket, his gentleman victim, MR. Brownlow (Larry Lewis) takes pity and invites him to his home, where the kind Mrs. Bedwin (Emily Ide) makes sure he has plenty to eat and a warm bed in which to sleep. When Old Sally (Maggie McGlone Jennings) is on her deathbed, she reveals a long-held secret about Oliver's mother. Kudos to Jennings. She turns a bit part into something special.
DeNicola conducts the particularly full sounding six-piece band. Carin Joy Weisner's violin solos stand out. Chorus numbers like "Food Glorious Food," "Who Will Buy" and "Oom, Pah Pah" are nicely executed.
Young Felson, making his debut at The Playhouse, completely captures the sweet, trusting nature of Oliver, even if some of the solos are a stretch for his still developing voice. His natural winsome charm must have caused delighted excitement for Director Connelly. You just can't coach that in a child actor. It's either there or it isn't, and in Felson's case, it's there in abundance.
Not only were there a bunch of kids on stage – there were tons of them in the audience during the matinee which I attended. It's terrific to see youngsters at the theater, but a word of caution: there is some pretty visual violence in the production. That and a two-and-a-half-hour run time might not be appropriate for very little ones.