Theater review: Admirable elements to Hale’s 'Oliver!'

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 17 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

"Oliver!," Hale Centre Theatre, through Dec. 1, Monday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., $24-$15, 801-984-9000 or halecentretheatre.org

WEST VALLEY CITY — Charles Dickens wrote “Oliver Twist” as an expose of the oppressive underworld of his day. “Oliver!” is a musical adaptation and the first of Dickens’ works to become a stage hit, and the show has enjoyed enduring popularity since its 1960 opening.

At the Hale Centre Theatre staging of the musical, there’s a valiant stab at combining the dark, engaging drama of the novel with the cheery optimism of many of the musical’s songs.

Hale’s production begins with orphaned workhouse boys re-creating the historically accurate work of “picking oakum,” removing by hand fibrous bits from old rope. The constant abuse the boys endure is evident when 9-year-old pauper Oliver joins them, and there’s a quick display of their harsh treatment from Widow Corney (fine work from Sallie Cooper). Then sounding like an English boys choir, the waifs begin “Food, Glorious Food."

Lionel Bart has written a bouquet of lovely ballads — “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Where Is Love?” — and oddly mixed them with bright choral numbers — “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything.”

Director Dave Tinney has demonstrated exemplary work attempting to resolve knotty scripts, as evidenced in his excellent staging of Hale’s “Zorro” at its U.S. premiere. With this show, Tinney has taken the bold step of making “Oliver!” more grim and gritty, more similar to “Oliver Twist” in tone and spirit. Would that it works. It doesn’t. The weaknesses of the script becomes more evident.

Were it not for the optimistic songs, one wonders why “Oliver!” has come to be appropriate for young children. Beyond the child abuse and workhouse drudgery, boys are taught to be pickpockets, a woman is beaten to death, yet all is well if your grandfather is wealthy. As the song explains, “It’s a Fine Life.”

The show has unnecessary characters and meaningless songs in the first act (Widow Corney’s “I Shall Scream” and Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry’s “That’s Your Funeral,” both removed from the 1968 movie version). And here Fagin is more gruff with his comic edge removed, in both “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Be Back Soon,” so there’s no longer the balance to Bill Sykes’ villainy.

There’s stop-and-start pacing until the second act, but then audiences are rewarded with a seamless, entertaining flow of the action, and elements develop there to be admired in the Hale staging.

The scene at Three Cripples Inn is full of raucous life. “Who Will Buy?” is staged lovely, with a small circus and clowns playing a calliope organ amid a rose peddler (Megan Phillips, in lovely voice), strawberry vendor (Danny Eggers, ditto) and other colorful merchants. When Nancy meets her fate on London Bridge, the audience is chilled at the horror.

Two actors shine brightly in lead roles. As Nancy, Jacquelyne Jones is lovely, sings sweetly and the audience clearly sympathizes with her. “Oom Pah Pah” is full of gusto and “As Long as He Needs Me” heartbreaking. Another song cut from director Carol Reed’s motion picture is Bill Sykes’ “My Name,” and Josh Richards’ character is so vividly portrayed that one wishes he had been given a second solo. (Note: Richards was a replacement in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast reviewed here, and his performance on this evening was not made clear, an injustice to the actors.)

Close observers will also recognize David Marsden’s strong performance as Governor and Dr. Grimwig. Barrett Ogden retains the wit of Fagin’s “Reviewing the Situation.”

If only Dickens had written a more lighthearted novel with a slightly altered title: “Oliver Twist!”

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