By DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st Century Media
Until Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hits started to roll off the assembly line in the 1970s, Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” held the record as the longest running English musical ever to play Broadway.
From its beginnings in 1960, Bart’s version of “Oliver Twist” has been one of those rare shows whose appeal bridged the generation gap. All age groups have responded to its mixture of Dickensian melodrama, catchy songs, teeming action and scenic spectacle. Judging by the response on opening night at The Dutch Country Players in Salford Township, the appeal continues.
Adapted from Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” the stage version offers a somewhat jollied up view of the ordeal of an orphan who dares to ask for more food at the workhouse, is sent out into the cruel world, falls in with a band of juvenile pickpockets under the benign control of Fagin and is eventually rescued from a life of fraternal crime by kindly, wealthy Mr. Brownlow, who turns out to be Oliver’s grandfather.
All this is nicely facilitated at DCP by Caris Baliles with an atmospheric scenic design that included reversible panels and Cathy Zeller’s period costumes.
Anyone familiar with Dickens will recall that the old boy was a middling writer, and most of the stuff he wrote was far too wordy because he wrote for pulp magazine serials. Lionel Bart has cut Dickens to the bone and added some biting lyrics which are right in character with the novel and its time, with music to match.
Dickens’s vitriolic attack in his novel on the evils of mid-19th century society in England, with its misery and poverty for so many of the poor and disadvantaged, was largely expurgated by Bart.
Opening night at DCP had some unfinished details that needed work, particularly in Act I. The first act was dimly lit, less energetic and a bit slow. Some of the voices didn’t carry well across the stage. The musical soundtrack in the first half was a bit muted, sort of like elevator music. The second act was noticeable better with more enthusiasm from the large ensemble and the cast. Even the musical soundtrack grew stronger adding that “Oom-pah-Pah” to the robust score.
Bill Algeo as Fagin takes his place among his gang of boys with convincing ease. His mannerisms are appropriate, not the big comic turn we are accustomed to in this show, yet he succeeds as he lives his larcenous existence with a seedy panache. His second act signature song “Reviewing the Situation” is nicely evocative and goes over big with the audience.
Nancy Thompson is strikingly dramatic as she plays and sings the emotional role of Nancy Sykes with power and skill. She plunges in and delivers a transfixing version of the show’s one ballad, “As Long as He Needs Me,” — all about Bill Sykes, who has just beaten her up — it is a number that somehow transcends its contemporary self-destructive content and emerges as a heartrending cry of pain and missed happiness.
Thompson ignites the bawdy earthiness of “It’s a Fine Life,” and bounces gently into a sweetly affecting duet with the Dodger in “I’d Do Anything,” which runs through a gamut of advancing emotions in her protective relationship with Oliver.
The lovely Michelle Lingle is another vocal standout with her beautiful reprise of “Where is Love.”
Jay Fletcher as Bill Sykes, imparts a black-hearted cruelty in his voice, his violence and even his walk. He is further distinguished by a rather odd looking hat. Other strong contributions come from Marian Henry as Mrs. Sowerberry and Jared Lingle as Noah Claypoole.
The children, so vital to Bart’s concept, hardly avoid looking too cute but are nevertheless entertaining as they consciously go through their choreographed movements on stage. Especially ingratiating is Julia Witwer the Artful Dodger. She not only steals watches and wallets, she almost steals the show.
Liam Keenan plays Oliver with a believable ease, and even manages the fiendishly difficult “Where Is Love?”
Lionel Bart sold the rights to “Oliver!” even before it even hit the West End, so sadly he never really reaped the rewards of his masterpiece. By 1972, he turned to drugs, and a twenty-year period of depression and alcoholism ensued. Bart died in 1999. The poor fellow ended up needing to pick a pocket or two as much as Fagin himself, wrecked and destitute, even though producer Cameron Mackintosh generously cut the composer back into some of the stage rights he sold off in his darkest hour.
It’s always nice to hear Bart’s hummable score again, and while not winning any plaudits for special effects or originality, this “Oliver!” serves as a wonderful introduction of the score and story to younger audience members, while also satisfying older members of the family.
IF YOU GO
WHEN: Continues through Aug. 2 at the Dutch Country Players, 795 Ridge Road in Salford Township.
INFO.: Call (215) 234.0966 or check www.dcptheatre.com.