Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on Charles Dickens' classic novel of the orphan boy named Oliver Twist, the story was adapted by Lionel Bart who wrote both the score and the book for this 1960 musical. With a string of classic show tunes, the plot of the show and novel follows Oliver's journey from his miserable workhouse life to being pulled unwillingly into a life of crime by a young teen boy called The Artful Dodger. Oliver lives and works with a group of juvenile delinquent pickpockets who are led by an older thief, Fagin. But Oliver yearns to find love, and a career in crime doesn't seem to be his lot in life.
Oliver! had a hugely successful run in London and a healthy one on Broadway before winning the 1968 Best Picture Oscar for its film adaptation. However, even with those accolades, it is a highly abbreviated version of the Dickens novel. Because of that, there are several pluses as well as a few minuses in how it was adapted for the stage. The omission of several supporting characters and plot points makes for a fast moving show but that also eliminates some emotional elements, and the character of Oliver all but disappears for about half of the second act. Even the ending shifts the focus to Fagin instead of the title character. Fortunately, Bart's score is sensational, with many catchy, rousing ensemble numbers and two excellent ballads.
While ABT can't do anything to remedy the book's shortcomings, they have a capable cast who deliver fairly good portrayals of these well-known characters and the overall production is the best looking show I've seen by this company. Douglas A. Clarke's set design, while static, includes a slanted second-story walkway, balcony and staircases all decked out in deep red brick and brassy metal finishes. With the addition of just a few set pieces, a fantastic changing backdrop that portrays the skyline of London, and Paul A. Black's sensational lighting, which is full of shadows and rich with hues of orange, brick red, purple and blue, the constantly changing designs create an abundance of impressive visual images. Lottie Dixon's costumes are equally as good, with rich fabrics, and Amanda Gran's wigs and hair designs are superb.
Andy Meyers directs the show to move at a fairly fast clip aided by Kurtis W. Overby's lively choreography and Lizzie Webb's skilled music direction. The three leads all do well with the vocal requirements of the score and create fine portrayals of these well-known characters. Corban Adams evokes a shy but sweet demeanor as Oliver yet also elicits hints of happiness once his living situation improves. As Fagin, Edward Prostak displays a good sense of compassion and care for the boys he employs and steers clear from playing the part too over the top or comical. A stronger sense of menace and foreboding would help to give more layers to the character and make us not quite sure of Fagin's true intentions. As Nancy, the older female who serves as a surrogate mother figure for Oliver and the other members of Fagin's gang, Cassandra Norville Klaphake and her bright, brassy voice deliver a powerful "As Long as He Needs Me" and she emotes plenty of sentiment in both her lyrics and dialogue to portray the pain Nancy has suffered in her life.
The cast also includes Brody Wurr who makes a charming Dodger and Geoff Belliston whose deep voice and imposing physical stature work well to form a clear sense of danger as Nancy's evil boyfriend Bill. Meyers also plays Bumble, the man who oversees the workhouse, and his beautiful voice delivers some soaring notes, especially on "Boy for Sale." Meyers and Johanna Carlisle as the Widow Corney form a great comical couple with both presenting real, yet humorous, characters. Fred Gerle brings plenty of compassion to a man whom Oliver tries to rob and Ali Whitwell gets a few nice moments to shine as Nancy's friend Bet. There are just a couple of small issues with the cast. Klaphake is probably a little too old for the part of Nancy in comparison to most other productions I've seen and the age of the character in the novel, but she and Belliston look realistic as a couple so it's not too much of an issue. While the majority of the actors deliver fine performances, there are a few others, including the trio who play the Sowerberry family, who are the ones who first buy Oliver, who are so over the top and broad that it almost seems like they are in a completely different show.
Fortunately, those few missteps are mostly forgotten when offset by the performances from the rest of the cast, the excellent Tony winning score, and the sensational creative elements that ABT has delivered. The end result is a fine production of this classic show.
Also of note, ABT has always valued the food portion of their dinner theatre experience on the same level as their productions and Executive Chef Erik Angelo, who joined ABT earlier this season, has added some excellent new additions to the menu, turning what has always been a fine dinner and a show experience into an even finer one.
Oliver! runs through May 21st, 2017, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
*Member, Actors' Equity Association