- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Columnist
Oliver! was a hit when it opened in 1960 and an even bigger hit when in 1968 it was adapted into a film ― winning the Oscar for Best Picture, no less! And if Wikipedia is to be believed, in the 1970s Oliver! was “by far the most popular school musical” in Britain.
I don’t know from the tastes of West End theatre audiences in the ’60s, and Best Picture picks have often been bizarre (2001: A Space Odyssey was released the same year and it wasn’t even nominated). But the Wikipedia claim makes perfect sense to me, because it’s easy to imagine such a simplistic, sunshiny take on Charles Dickens going over well with teenage Baby Boomers.
The questions before us today are:
- whether such a work is still worth staging; and
- whether Musical Theatre West does a good job of it.
By way of answering the first, the most I can say for Lionel Bart’s music is that the melodies are straightforward and easy to swallow; but the unvarying repetition triggers acid reflux, with several songs sporting enough verses to make Bob Dylan blush (and that’s before they are reprised). As for the lyrics, well, how about, “He doesn’t act as though he cares / But deep inside I know he cares / That’s why I’m tied / Right by his side”? Oof. The dialog functions at about the same level, with humor that seems unsophisticated even by 1960 standards, never mind our own.
But even if you’re a big fan of Mr. Bart’s work, you may still find this production of Oliver! lacking, and the main reason is the staging. One thing Oliver! has going for it as a piece of musical theatre is the possibility of spectacle. Opening with an ensemble number set in a children’s workhouse, Oliver! is meant to be big right out of the gate, and it should stay big as it winds through the streets of London, down into the city’s underbelly, up into an alehouse, and ultimately across London Bridge. Musical Theatre West, however, only hints at the intended scale.
A bigger cast size and grander sets would help, but the choreography is the main culprit. We need dynamic movement to distract us from the redundancy of the music, yet number after number feels static, with clumps of actors doing relatively minimal moves at center stage, while little is happening elsewhere. (Act Two opener “Oom-Pah-Pah” is probably the only song where the entire stage is engaged.) And although it may be uncharitable to pick on the kids, during certain ensemble numbers (e.g., “Consider Yourself”) they are often noticeably out of sync. Kudos, though, to Musical Theatre West for not giving us a bunch of 15-year-olds and insisting we suspend our disbelief.
Thankfully, the singing is more impressive. As Oliver, Travis Burnett is great. He nails “Where Is Love” ― which he better, since this is the title character’s only solo ― capably stepping higher and higher until hitting the song’s sustained peak, which he holds beautifully. As Nancy, Cayman Ilika is the other standout, with enough power to make and range to make “As Long as He Needs Me” sound like a walk in the park. The ensemble is always good and occasionally great. “Who Will Buy” really gets going, with the four foundational voices soaring together like a celestial organ.
The acting is more of a mixed bag. Burnett shines, but Jason Brewer’s Artful Dodger is a bit stiff, and Kenny Landmon’s Bill Sikes needs to be more intense and intimidating to make his completely one-dimensional role (not his fault ― that’s how it’s written) work. As Fagin, Davis Gaines does solid work, relying on his acting chops to make his songs pay off. The supporting cast is generally solid.
Admittedly, Oliver! is simply not for me, no matter how well staged. But there is no doubt that Musical Theatre West has left something on the table by not choreographing the show more dynamically. Therefore, while fans may be pleased with this chance to revisit an old friend, I fear they may come away feeling he has lost some of the vigor that made him so dear in the first place.