Saturday, December 23, 2017

Oliver! (Warning! Plot Spoilers Contained Within!)

At my daughter's request, she and I saw a production of Oliver! last night at the Smithtown Performing Arts Center. I was a little surprised she was interested in seeing it -- as I've mentioned in the past, she usually leans towards the happy shows, and while this one has an upbeat enough ending, I remember the film kind of traumatizing me as a kid. I think it was that whole Bill Sykes bashing Nancy Sykes' head in thing. Seriously, what is wrong with people! It was supposed to be a family film, I guess because the main character is a little kid. But they make Nancy a really likable character -- she's one of the ones who tries to protect  Oliver. Then they not only show you her husband slapping the crap out of her, but later, they actually have him kill her. Then the cops blow old Bill Sykes away, so that's supposed to make everything all right. Damned film gave me nightmares.

And I'm not the only one. My Dad was a fan of the film, and my sister tells me she has memories of walking with him down Astoria Boulevard in the snow, as he sang "Girl For Sale," with verses such as, "Who will buy this little tyke? I'll even throw in a mini-bike." Is it any wonder we all need therapy?

But my daughter wanted to see it. I think it's a whole British thing. One of the jokes in my family revolves around the idea that as best we can tell, her whole birth family is of British lineage, and she has very British tastes -- she loves Monty Python and Doctor Who, and she prefers her soda warm. Because my own heritage is Irish, I always accuse her of oppressing my people. And she usually answers something like, "We told you not to wear skirts! But did you listen?" I try to explain the many virtues of the kilt, but the child just doesn't get it.

Now, I'm kind of glad in the way that Smithtown PAC chose to do Oliver! Because at this time of the year, most of the local theaters try to show something that's "family" entertainment, and it makes for a lot of the same old thing. I opened up the theater page of Good Times last night, and three of the listings in a row are for Annie. And as shows about poor orphans who wind up adopted by rich guys go, I prefer Oliver!

Anyway, Oliver! I'd say this production has its good points and bad points. One of the things I was wondering about going in was how they would handle the issue of the lead. Let's face it, it's not always that easy to find child actors who can consistently pull off a lead roll like this one. It's one of the reasons I think that not too many community theaters have jumped on doing Matilda. They do Annie often enough, but then again it's not all that unusual to find talented 16-year-olds in the part of Annie. So I was curious to see if they'd go with an age-appropriate Oliver. (And when the show started a few minutes late, my daughter and I might have made a few jokes about the idea that the rest of the cast was backstage, busily trying to sober up a 20-something "Oliver" enough to start the show, while he clutched desperately at his whiskey bottle, begging, "Please sir! I want some more!"

But actually, the actor playing Oliver was a totally age-appropriate young man named Austin Levine, and he just came off of the National Tour of Sound of Music. He did a pretty good job in the role, but some of his songs were better than others. For example, he did a mostly spot-on performance of "Who Will Buy?", but had some trouble with the higher parts of the range in "Where Is Love?"

Of the other main actors, I especially liked Jess Ader as Nancy. She had a good mix of toughness and vulnerability, and she really nailed her big number, "As Long As He Needs Me". She was pretty damned strong on "I'd Do Anything" and "Oom-Pah-Pah" as well. I really wish Bill Sykes hadn't bashed her skull in (although at least this took place off stage, thus making the violence arguably less upsetting than the violence in this theater company's production of Man of La Mancha a few months back). 

Nick Masson's Fagin was charismatic and funny, although he kept doing this breathy thing with his voice that drove me crazy. (And whose idea was it give him make-up like a raccoon, with two black circles around his eyes? I don't get what was up with that.) Sandro Scegna, who played Pedro in that last production of Man of La Mancha, was appropriately glowering as the brutish Bill Sykes.

The fairly large ensemble cast was pretty solid. There were a lot of young actors and actresses among the workhouse boys, pickpockets and Londoners, and they gave spirited performances. And two actors' whose performances I particularly enjoyed were Chazmond Peacock (in about five different roles, including those of Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker and Dr. Grimwig) and Taylor Duff as Nancy's friend (or sister) Bet (and as a London flower girl as well). Peacock sings well and shows some strong comedic talent, and Duff has a lovely pure, high voice.

The play itself feels a little dated in some ways (although to its credit, it never treats its domestic violence undertones in any way lightly), and at times the story feels a little rushed. But it also has some real treats, chief among them an abundance of good songs. Besides some of the ones I already mentioned, other famous numbers include "Food, Glorious Food", "Consider Yourself", "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two", and Fagin's big number, "Reviewing the Situation".

For this version, Oliver! was nicely directed by Jordan Hue, and the larger musical numbers were pretty well choreographed by Jessica Gill. (Everyone sort of danced like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins -- "Come on Matie, step in time!" -- but I guess that in a musical set in Victorian London, they really have to).

In any event, my daughter enjoyed the production, and that was mainly the audience that I cared about. The show is running through January 21, with weekday matinee performances the whole week between Christmas and New Year's. Now if only I can convince her to go back to see Mamma Mia! in March. Kids!