Dickens’ characters go musical in 'Oliver!'

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

WEST VALLEY CITY — The story of Oliver Twist is, as they say, a Dickens of a tale.

The second work of the great novelist, “Oliver Twist” is a protest against the Victorian belief that criminals were born wicked. Instead, Charles Dickens argued that a corrupt environment is the source of vice.

“As a lifelong proponent for social change and an advocate for the multitudes of discarded and forgotten poor, Dickens used biting satirical narrative intended to bring the public’s focus to various contemporary evils,” says Dave Tinney.

Yet when British pop music writer Lionel Bart adapted the tome for the musical stage, he had no plans to be reverential to the source material with “Oliver!”

Tinney, who directs "Oliver!" at the Hale Centre Theatre, says Dickens' story is “radiant with hope, humanity, sacrifice, triumph and redemption. ‘Oliver!’ is a reminder that we are all indeed ‘our brother’s keeper.’ ”

Bart recognized that the larger-than-life characters, comic settings and twist-filled plots of "Oliver Twist" would make for good musical theater, and he glossed over graphic passages to present a light entertainment. Oliver’s plight is one of those stories most people know, even if they’ve never actually read the novel. Who hasn’t at one time or another recited “Please, sir, I want some more”?

The backstory of “Oliver!” is nearly as twisted and Dickensian as the novel, replete with firsts in musical theater history.

Although it wasn’t the first musical with an exclamation mark in its title (the Gershwins’ “Oh, Kay!” holds that record), “Oliver!” was the first musical adaptation of a famous Dickens work to become a stage hit, and Bart became the first English composer to win a Tony Award for best musical. And the musical was also the first to have songs — “Consider Yourself” and “As Long as He Needs Me” — released as singles before the show’s opening to became hits.

When “Oliver!” opened in 1960 on the West End, there were a record-setting 23 curtain calls, and the show ran for a remarkable 2,618 performances in London.

Bart was also an unlikely composer to enjoy the success of “Oliver!” Though he had authored a handful of English pop ditties, he could not read, write or play music. He famously said he couldn’t tell the difference between A flat and “a council flat” (a British rental unit owned by a council, or local government). Instead, he sang his tunes and lyrics into his constant companion, a tape recorder.

Though he wrote the lyric, “In this world, one thing counts / in the bank, large amounts,” Bart lived lavishly only to die penniless. He invested his fortune from “Oliver!” in the failed “Twang!!” (with two exclamation marks). His other works — “Blitz!” and the unproduced “ Quasimodo!” — were also stunning failures. (Surely, misplaced enthusiasm prompted Bart’s overused punctuation.)

Yet just as musical theater enthusiasts cannot enjoy Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” without longing to hear the Cole Porter score for “Kiss Me, Kate,” many cannot consider “Oliver Twist” without hearing the workhouse boys singing “Food, Glorious Food.”

If you go

What: “Oliver!”

Where: Hale Centre Theatre

When: Oct. 10-Dec. 1; Monday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.

How much: $24-$15

Tickets: 801-984-9000 or halecentretheatre.org

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