Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Oliver! - Sharon Playhouse

The production of Oliver!, running at the Sharon Playhouse through August 20, is a mixed bag.  The three adult performers - James Beaman (Fagin), Justin Michael Duval (Bill Sikes), and Gina Naomi Baez (Nancy) - add a professional sheen to the show.  However, the two key child actors are not up to the task of carrying a large-scale musical.  Ivan Howe brings a sweet and pleasing nature to the central role of Oliver, but he often seems lost within the production.  Phoebe Amankwah gives the Artful Dodger the outsized confidence necessary for the character, but her portrayal is too one-dimensional.


Oliver!, with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, is based on the Charles Dickens classic, Oliver Twist.  As with the novel, we are introduced to Oliver, an orphan boy in one of the notorious Victorian era workhouses.  He is impudent and brazen.  Through a series of misadventures he meets the Artful Dodger who introduces him to Fagin, an aged “den mother” to a bevy of thievish children he teaches the art of pickpocketing.  Lurking around is Bill Sikes, a former member of Fagin’s gang, but now an older, hulking brute still in the game, and his beau Nancy.  When Oliver is nabbed during his maiden outing as a thief, a whole series of events are triggered that not only save the young boy from a life of crime, but reveals his true identity.


Lionel Bart’s score is more successful than his book for the show, which is partially understandable since he had to condense a novel of over 600 pages.  The musical is very episodic and scenes directed by Michael Kevin Baldwin can come across as somewhat ponderous.  The intimate, less raucous moments of the show, staged within TJ Greenway’s multi-faceted sets, are more rewarding.


The score is the strength of the show.  It includes well-known songs, many steeped in the English Music Hall tradition of sing-a-longs and boisterous melodies.  There is the rollicking “Consider Yourself” and “Oom-Pah-Pah,” which choreographer Michelle Lemon uses to stage lively, upbeat production numbers.  The dancers, especially the younger members of the ensemble, aren’t always in step, but the routines are diverting and entertaining.  James Beaman’s Fagin delivers two comic gems - “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation.”  Gina Naomi Baez can belt (“It’s a Fine Life”) and show bittersweet tenderness ("As Long as He Needs Me") in her numbers.


Costumed in period garb by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, the cast, primarily the aforementioned central characters, bring a thoroughness and reliability to their roles.  James Beaman strikes just the right mix of comic sensibility and mischievousness to the role of Fagin.  Justin Michael Duval is aptly menacing as the roguish Bill Sikes and Ms. Baez, with a gorgeous vocal delivery, shows vulnerability and bravado as the doomed Nancy.  John Bergeron’s Mr. Bumble can come across a bit too cartoonish and Savannah Stevenson, who lends her beautiful voice to a number of songs, could have toned down her bellowing tirades.


Oliver!, playing at the Sharon Playhouse through August 20.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.


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