At PCPA’s Marian Theatre, Saturday, April 22.
Reviewed by D. J. Palladino
What does a definitive Oliver! production look like? Should Lionel Bart’s classic be more stylized or more realistic like the great Carol Reed film from 1968, when the play was fresh from Broadway? This production, directed by Dianna Shuster, begins with a heap of set elements in the middle of the stage, like 1990s nouvelle cuisine with the steak piled up on the mashed potatoes and asparagus spears pointing to the sky. Then, as it overtures, the cast comes buzzing on the stage and, in a precisely choreographed dance, sets up screens and tables and benches, upon which the great orphans’ ensemble will soon be singing the (almost campy now) anthem “Food, Glorious Food.” It’s a self-conscious welcoming, and, without being too negative about anything in this superb production, I would say it throws you into the world of artifice. An Oliver! is definitive when it makes you hum the great tunes and sets you up against the way the world forgets to protect the innocent.
There’s much to appreciate in this great PCPA spectacle. The key performers shone, and each had at least one toothsome solo. Nancy, played with particular sauce by Bryn Elizan Harris, got the lion’s share of showstoppers, and “As Long as He Needs Me,” made up in real lyrical power whatever it lacked in believability. The highest peak achieved in this great show was surprising — Andrew Philpot as Mr. Bumble singing “Boy for Sale” with a tone that managed a depth of sadness and damning irony, too. The strongest sell of the play, however, was its orchestrated crowd scenes. Here, the art of the show — clearly the director’s focus — including dance, acting, and dulcet musicality was most pointed. The best example of that was the “Who Will Buy” sequence, including Katie Worley and the great Santa Barbara High grad, Siobhan Doherty. All the strands were lucid and they added up to a stirring tapestry.
Much of the weaving comes from choreographer Michael Jenkinson, veering into the Swiss watch realm with high steps and throws and jumps. But maybe the play needed to be wound a bit scarier. Edward Hightower’s Bill Sykes seemed merely blustery until the murder scene. Later, when Fagin — brilliantly played by David Studwell — shrugs and walks off with an already corrupted child, it’s a moment that admits considerable darkness into the mix. But it comes late, and by that time we’re more inclined by the music to consider ourselves at home.