The Artful Dodger (Patrick Kennedy) and Oliver (Cameron Nelson) consider their new friendship. Photo by Andrew Eicher.
Porthouse Theatre is currently serving up the musical Oliver! With music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart, the musical is based upon the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, published in 1838. The story is about an orphan, Oliver Twist, who endures a miserable existence in a workhouse and then is placed with an undertaker. He escapes and travels to London where he meets the Artful Dodger, leader of a gang of juvenile pickpockets. Naïvely unaware of their unlawful activities, Oliver is led to the lair of their elderly criminal trainer Fagin. From there, Oliver travels through some rough spots, until he finally meets his destiny. Along the way, he encounters many memorial characters. The musical had a Broadway premiere in 1963 and enjoyed a long successful run.
The plot of Dickens’ original novel is considerably simplified for the purposes of the original musical, with Fagin being represented more as a comic character than as a villain. This premise seems to permeate this particular production of Oliver! Terri Kent*^ seems to have chosen a lighter presentation of the show, focusing on the more entertaining aspects, rather than digging into the disturbing layers. Reflected in that choice is the break neck pace of the show. Each scene seamlessly shifting from one location to the next, and at times not allowing the emotional set up for some of the heartbreaking moments and songs of the show. So, if you are looking for a darker interpretation, you won’t find that here. But, if you enjoy a pick me up polished production, what you will find is a slick, musically rich, vocally powerful, visually enticing, and character rich production. It is kind of Oliver!-lite. From the reaction throughout the piece from the audience, it is clear that Kent knows exactly what her audience wants, and she has assembled a fantastic production team to illuminate the dark roads of London. Along with an assemblage of kids that could melt an ice storm in seconds with charm and talent.
Before the show started I heard the orchestra tuning up, and I was delighted that Musical Director Jonathan Swoboda chose to assemble a kick ass orchestra to fire up the score. And speaking of kicking some butt, Choreographer MaryAnn Black* took hold of the space and turned in some spectacular dance, and provided the kids with charming and lighthearted moves, which had the audience wanting to throw their wallets at them, instead of them having to work so hard to steal their treasure. Working within a limited dance space, Black was able to make those talented hoofers bust out some moves that were a joy to watch.
Cameron Nelson+ was a delight as Oliver Twist. With a heartbreaking sweet voice, and sass for days, Nelson traversed this tale with gusto and confidence, while taking the audience along. Her performance certainly took hold of our hearts. Patrick Kennedy* was terrific as the Artful Dodger. Full of confidence, clear diction, and a full voice, he sang, finagled, and danced right into the victory lane. Fagin, delightfully played by Eric Van Baars*^, was a fantastic ride of wrong. He gave Fagin such an entertaining personably edge, even though everything his character is doing is abhorrent. In other productions, I usually have to down a 5 hour energy drink somewhere in the middle of Reviewing the Situation, but here, Baars was terrific and entertaining.
Ok, somebody give Mr. Bumble (Timothy Culvert+) and Widow Corney (Lissy Gulick) a cabaret show. These two actors were killing me in this show. Both are equipped with powerhouse voices, and comedic timing that kept me from eating my soft pretzel, and just laughing. Which is saying a lot. Culver embracing every hysterical nuance of his character, while belting out BOY FOR SALE, like it was just another day on the Thames. And Gulick, bouncing around in that fabulous costume, like her undergarments were full of helium, and working what God gave her to great amusement.
For some reason, I never got the depth of despair or aggression from Nancy (Miriam Henkel-Moellmann+) and Bill Sykes (Brian Keith Johnson*). Their voices were glorious and certainly strong acting chops, but for Moellmann, not until the reprise of As Long As He Needs Me, did the angst and power truly connect. Johnson has a superb operatic voice, but some of his low notes were lost, and I was distracted by the riff at the end of My Name. In honesty, the edginess might be a victim of the pace. They were consummate professionals, and certainly earned that London street cred and the audiences’ approval.
The rest of the cast was great, creating one entertaining scene after another. The Boy’s Ensemble was a blast. A wonderful carnage of sweet faces, dancing feet, and unbridled energy. And the supporting characters were each a dose of comedic gold.
Costume Designer Sarah Russell did a terrific job, Stage Manager Derric Nolte* called a great show, Lighting Designer T.C. Kouyeas, Jr. created a visual treat (loved the confrontation isolate), Technical Director Ryan T. Patterson efficiently pulled the elements together, Scenic Designer Nolan C. O’Dell did a superb job, Sound Designer provided great balance.
Although this production doesn’t delve deep into the darkness, it is full of energetic performances that deserve a visit. All I heard around me was “This was terrific.”
+Equity Membership Candidate
*Member of Actor’s Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers.
^Member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, a national theatrical labor union.
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$17-$38 Reserved Seating
Blossom Music Center
1145 W Steels Corners Rd
Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223