Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of Oliver! at the Media Theatre

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-15-2008:

In addition to the pageant of George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker," one holiday tradition dominates Philly stages each December: the theatrical cash-cow of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But according to Media Theatre Artistic Director Jesse Cline, Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! proves that there’s another Dickens’ story worth seeing during the holidays.

In our current economic climate, Cline’s insight hits home; even the toy sales dropped on Black Friday and shoppers left the malls without that "must-buy" item for their kids. But it’s a safe bet that no child in America would trade places with Dickens’ Oliver (Tovi Wayne) and face the dreary childhood he experienced in Victorian England. Orphaned since birth, he grows up eating nothing but gruel in a miserable orphanage run by the corrupt Mr. Bumble (Nicholas F. Saverine), a penny-pincher who sells Oliver for five pounds when the boy has the cheek to ask for another helping of food.

But his life gets no better working for a funeral director (Jim Ludovici as Mr. Sowerberry), and Oliver escapes into the clutches of The Artful Dodger (Will Porter) and Fagin (Bev Appleton), a pair that turns lonely runaways into an organized gang of pickpockets. His once chance at rescue and redemption lies in the warmth of a street-worker who befriends him (Elisa Matthews as Nancy), and the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Stephen Bonnell), who believes that Oliver might be his grandson.

Kelly Michelle Leight’s dreary, gun-metal colored set serves as a miserable reminder of the workhouse conditions and pollution that coated London in grime during the height of the Industrial Revolution, and her harsh lighting doubly reminds of that bleak period. Costume designer Mary Ann Swords-Greene dresses the cast to reflect a divided society with which we’re too familiar, as the prim, well-kept appearance of those with position contrasts sharply against the Victorian-era underclass, who, like the chimney sweeps of that age, look perpetually covered in soot.

Policemen don’t hesitate to shoot a man on sight or even punch children in the face, and this "Oliver!" makes it clear that 100 years ago in England, society’s throwaway class suffered horribly. But rather than let the production’s atmosphere serve as the backdrop for a gripping Dickensian story of good versus evil and compassionate hope pitted against cynical greed, Cline’s lackluster staging deprives this production of energy. The chorus of ten-year-old orphans and pickpockets mostly stand around even during the uplifting numbers, and Tim Haney’s shoddy choreography doesn’t even give the adults anything interesting to do.

Cline’s staging would even had me doubt that some excitable and rambunctious 10-year-old ever existed to inspire Dickens title character, as Wayne sits or stands in almost passive acceptance of what happens to him, wondering "where is love?" in a world that offers him little kindness. This makes the production a double shame, as Oliver’s compelling story of hope becomes something dreary, rather than uplifting, and the spectacular singing seems out of place.

Saverine’s gorgeous, opera-quality singing fits right in with a cast that offers so much talent. In anyone else’s production, even these flower girls could play the female lead, and only the extraordinary Matthews, in her beautifully sung and inspired portrayal as Nancy, can outshine them. And by itself Wayne’s bright and richly colored paid for the plane ticket that brought him from California to play the title role.

So anyone looking for incredible voices can skip even the Academy of Music’s "Messiah" this year and head to Media to hear Oliver!, where the comparison to a choral work is unfortunately even more apt in the staging. But as for finding the Holiday spirit? The level of energy in the production leaves me doubting that anyone could walk out of the theatre and think of Tiny Tim saying "God bless us, every one."

Oliver!, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media PA, until January 4, 2009. Tickets and more information available at the theater’s website.

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