By John Farrell
You’ve got to wonder where they get them.
When Oliver! opened in London in 1960 it was unique. When it Opened on Broadway in 1963 it was still nearly unique, and the film version, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1968, still used only one child as Oliver Twist. You can find a great child actor capable of a belting pre-voice-change soprano now and then.
But Oliver! has gone on to becoming not only one of the best-known musicals from Broadway and London, but a perennial favorite of much smaller companies as well, companies like the Kentwood Players, who have mounted a very impressive production that overflows the small Westchester Playhouse with just under thirty (we counted 29, but they kept moving) performers and runs there through April 21.
Where did they get their Oliver, young Joseph Peter West? We didn’t ask, but they are very lucky, for West can sing with the best of them and has that charming, deer-in-the-headlights look that makes Oliver such a winning character.
There’s another young man in the principle cast, the Artful Dodger, Logan Gould, who is equally charming, though his tie is too big and his speaking accent equally big at first. That theater companies can regularly produce this musical without trouble suggests there is a lot of talent out there.
Oliver! tells the Dickens’ story of a young waif who escapes from a workhouse (like Dickens himself) and falls in with a criminal group (unlike Dickens), only to be rescued his long-lost grandfather. Lionel Bart, who wrote the musical, toned down its violence and many of the criminal characters, and wrote some of the best (and most singable) songs for the musical.
One character he changed is Fagin, the clearly-Jewish leader of the children’s gang, an anti-Semitic character in Dickens, a nearly noble one in the musical. Ben Lupejkis makes his Fagin loveable, scheming but still concerned about the children he oversees, with conflicted emotions.
Nancy is the charming, attractive and vocal brilliant Elizabeth Bouton and Bill Sykes, the one real villain of the piece (besides the Victorian system that Dickens exposes) is the deliciously evil Drew Fitzsimmons. Martin Feldman is the bumbling Mr. Bumble, all hat and attitude.
The cast is effective, but the production would be much less if Director Harold Dershimer hadn’t envisioned a production that uses the whole stage and aisles as well for the show. The set seems simple at first, but in the second act it is turned (literally) inside out and around to suit the action. With Choreographer Anna Rubin and Musical Director Anna Rubin (this version features live music) he gets every bit of use from his characters, from the boys at the workhouse to the girls dancing in the pub. He sets a number of brilliant pictures on stage, and they work. The five-piece band set above the stage sets a lively pace, and includes one player who doubles on several instruments, including what appears to be an oboe!
This post was recently altered to correct the previous sentence to reflect it was five-piece band that performed.
This production follows, by a few months, the Kentwood production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, also full out on the same small stage. Both productions show the Kentwood Players have a lot of courage, and the ability to make that courage work.
Tickets are $23, with a two dollar discount for students, seniors and military members. Performances are Friday, March 30 at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 31 at 8 p.m., Sunday, April 1 at 2 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Saturday, April 21.
Details: (310) 645-5156, www.kentwoodplayers.org
Venue: Westchester Playhouse
Location: 8301 Hindry Ave., Los Angeles