Monday, November 8, 2010
By Tom Wachunas
Much of the local buzz about the recent Players Guild opening of “Oliver!” has been about the decision to present it not on the impressively-fitted mainstage, but in the William G. Fry Theatre – the Guild’s much smaller, “black box” venue. After all, the production has long and deservedly occupied a venerated place in the history of musical theatre, and so understandably takes on an expectation of sprawling dimensionality. In retrospect, the decision to somehow shrink this lyrical epic to a more intimate scale was a truly visionary one, and one that in no way dilutes or minimizes the show’s overall richness. In fact, in these close quarters, the show’s dramatic impact becomes all the more immediate and visceral.
For starters, there’s the wondrously inventive set design by director Jonathan Tisevich and technical/lighting designer Craig M. Betz. A series of raised platforms and ramps (looking like stressed wood and effectively conjuring decrepit, crowded urban conditions) allow for action to take place not just at eye-level, but above as well as around the audience. Space constraints being what they are here, the excellent four-piece orchestra under the direction of Steve Parsons has been cleverly placed in a room off-stage. The room was equipped with a live camera feed for the musicians to keep in tight flow with the always energetic and crisp ensemble singing by an eminently talented cast.
To the role of the disheveled and eccentric Fagin, the cunning overseer of pickpocket street waifs, Greg Rininger brings a thoroughly riveting air of sinister camp that pours out hilariously when he sings “Reviewing the Situation” directly to some very surprised audience members. As Artful Dodger, Marina Dallas (who alternates with Dakayla Noble in the role) presents a delightfully spry portrait of the swaggering (oh that Cockney accent!), two-faced ‘guardian’ of Oliver. Playing the remorseless, vicious Bill Sykes, Aaron Brown basically stops the show (and your heart) with his thunderous entrance in the second act. His impeccably crafted cruelty takes on even more monstrous proportions particularly in light of the street-hardened yet tender loyalty of his ‘girlfriend,’ Nancy. In that role, Sarah Karam provides some of the evening’s most electrifying and heartfelt singing with her gripping delivery of “As Long As He Needs Me.”
The evening is certainly not without its moments of outright humor. Among those are the pub scene featuring the communal drunken revelry in the song “Oom Pah Pah,” and the scenes featuring the characters of the conniving and argumentative Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, played by Dave Lapp and Emily Hubbard, whose singing voice lends an occasionally operatic edge to the proceedings.
Finally, as Oliver Twist, nine year-old Drake Spina (who alternates in the role with Morgan Brown) is on one level something of an irony. His singing in “Where Is Love” and the beautifully layered “Who Will Buy?” is sweet, direct, and gently compelling. Yet as a performer on stage - the focus of so much volatile attention from the population surrounding and assailing him – he’s not so much an actor as he is a haunting presence. His most physically animated moment comes in a brief scene wherein he attacks the relentless bully Noah Claypole (played with gleeful relish by David Burkhardt) for insulting his dead mother. Otherwise, young Spina’s low-key aura nonetheless effectively communicates a tired desperation, even a muted pain.
I’m reminded, sadly, that for all its magnetism and appeal as popular entertainment, “Oliver!” is at it’s core – despite its bright moments of humor, sympathy, and hope - a darkly unromantic indictment of societal cruelties and hypocrisies. I wonder if Charles Dickens might well be mortified today that the evils he so urgently and eloquently addressed in 19th century London (spawning awareness then of “The Great London Waif Crisis”) are, much to our shame, still abundantly with us nearly two hundred years later. And so it is that Oliver’s / Spina’s wistful innocence in “Where is Love?” resonates all the more with bittersweet relevance.
Photo, courtesy Players Guild: Greg Rininger as Fagin in the Players Guild Theatre production of “Oliver!” Showing at the William G. Frye Theatre, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue. N, Canton. Tickets $15. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30p.m., THROUGH NOVEMBER 21. To order call (330) 453 – 7617 or visit www.playersguildtheatre.com