The musical “Oliver!,” based on the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist,” is surely one of the darkest of the most popular Broadway musicals. It is peopled by the money-hungry Fagin, leader of a band of little boy criminals; the undertaker Sowerberry and his shrewish wife; and, of course, the villainous Bill Sykes, the Voldemort of 19th century London.
As presented by the Mac-Haydn Theatre, the production is as deliciously netherworldly as it gets. It depicts London’s steamy underbelly from the viewpoint of an innocent 13-old-year boy.
Oliver, played on opening day by George Franklin, was born at Mudfog Workhouse and never knew his mother or father. We find him 13 years later in the workhouse dining hall with lots of other orphans eating gruel. When he asks Mr. Bumble (Kevin Kelly), head of the orphanage, for more food, he is promptly cast into the streets, where he is sold to Sowerberry (Derrick Jacques) and put to work as a “junior coffin follower.” Escaping, he meets The Artful Dodger, played by Joey LaBrasca, who ushers him to Fagin’s (Gabe Belyeu) dreary den of pint-sized thieves. There he meets Nancy (Laura Helm), a former little girl pickpocket. We find that the warm and spunky Nancy is helplessly, hauntingly in love with Bill Sykes (Quinto Ott).
WHERE: The Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Route 203, Chatham
WHEN: Through June 17
HOW MUCH: $30-$28, discounts available
MORE INFO: 392-9292, www.machaydntheatre.org
Oliver, with the help of his new friends, learns to pick pockets and “artfully” dodge London’s hoi polloi—as well as the London Bobbies.
If the story seems grim, director John Saunders shepherds it masterfully, mindful always of the comedic moments as well as the more tender ones. He and his superb cast create a truly captivating theater experience.
I will not give away the secrets of the show, just in case you are unfamiliar with the story (is that even possible?), but I will tell you that for some there is happiness in store, for others not so much. And for at least one character, redemption may be just around the corner. It is a rich musical based on an even richer tale.
The title character (played at alternate performances by Aidan Fecko) is without question one of the more engaging creations in theatrical history. Franklin gives Oliver a sweetness, despite his horrifying circumstances, that touches the heart. He has acting ability that will surely grow with his experience and a voice like a bell. He is a treasure.
LaBrasca as his friend and mentor steals every scene he is in. This gifted young performer matches his more mature fellow actors with confidence and a zest that is truly infectious. He has a strong singing voice and an athlete’s fortitude when he dances.
The choreography, by the way, by Bryan Knowlton, is superb and, I must say, fits every scene admirably.
Bellyeu is not the Fagin of the novel. This talented comedic actor knows just the right notes to hit so that we love him even as we deplore his occupation. Helm, as the ill-fated Nancy, could not be more perfectly cast. Her “As Long As He Needs Me” is touching in its pathos and the song’s reprise at the end of the second act is bold and filled with resolve. Helm’s phrasing is superlative.
There are some notable standouts in this remarkable ensemble. Rasheem Ford displays a strong voice as The Knife Grinder, Lisa Passonno Franklin, as Mrs. Bedwin, warms the heart with her reprise of “Where is Love” in the second act, and Parker Krug and Derrick Jacques are delightful as the Eccentric Dancers.