Lionel Bart's Oliver! opens with "Food, Glorious Food" - an appropriate song for a dinner theater and one of the reasons that Chesapeake Music Hall's current offering is a winner.
This production marks the auspicious directing debut of Jeff Davis, who has a talented cast of singing and dancing actors to make us laugh and to touch our hearts.
As musical director, Anita O'Connor delivers her usual top-notch job, as does Music Hall owner Sherry Kay Anderson with costuming and set design.
More than 40 years after its London debut and subsequent Tony-winning run on Broadway, Lionel Bart's Oliver! seems as much a part of our culture as the Victorian-era Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, which inspired it.
The story of the sorry workhouse existence of orphan Oliver and his subsequent joining of a pickpocket band marked the beginning of an enormous British presence in American musical comedy.
Born in London's slums to Jewish parents, Bart understood Dickens' impoverished characters. He simplified the Victorian novel and transformed Fagin from Dickens' reflection of Victorian anti-Semitism into an unforgettable character combining human vices and virtues. His tuneful score continues to work its magic as it brings his characters to robust life.
Under Davis' direction, the Music Hall's production of Oliver! builds with each scene, with fast-paced action and sets that are moved into place with little wasted time.
On opening weekend, "Food, Glorious Food" sputtered more than sparkled, perhaps reflecting youthful opening jitters among the orphans cast, which includes fourth-grader Ben Korbelak as Oliver.
The action grew livelier at the entrance of mellow-voiced Kevin Cleaver, as Mr. Bumble, and comical Stephanie Lynn Williams, as Widow Corney, who finds Oliver's behavior more than she can endure. Together, Cleaver and Williams deliver a hilarious "I Shall Scream" that sets a humorous tone for what follows.
Soon Oliver is sent to work for Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry in their undertaker's parlor, where he is expected to subsist on a meager diet and sleep beside a coffin to become a chief mourner at children's funerals.
These macabre surroundings heighten the grim humor provided by excellent singer and fine comic actress Mary Ann Marlowe, as Mrs. Sowerberry, and talented Jud Wegner, as Mr. Sowerberry. Together they deliver a terrific version of the biting "That's Your Funeral." Later, Marlowe provides plenty of laughs with her comic antics at the coffin.
Jerry Vess, as the bumbling, warm-hearted fence Fagin, radiated warm good nature and brought such a dynamic delivery to the show's hit song "Consider Yourself" that we in the audience did "consider ourselves part of the family."
Outstanding among the boys is 11-year-old Jacob Perry, who is captivating as the Artful Dodger. Perry's Dodger delivers a spirited rendition of "I'll Do Anything" that proves irresistible.
Fagin's family also boasts charming Jennifer Kohlhafer, as Bet, and the Music Hall's new leading lady, Elizabeth Alexander, as Nancy. Alexander played Marian the Librarian in CMH's recent Music Man and impressed with her lovely singing voice and acting ability.
Showing impressive versatility, Alexander now becomes the tragic, courageous Nancy, who loves the sinister Bill Sykes. Alexander's heartfelt "As Long as He Needs Me" is a showstopper, lovely despite seeming much like an abused woman's anthem.
Sykes is brilliantly played by H. Alan Hoffman, who displays equal versatility, becoming completely believable in the role of a villain, a sizable stretch after his recent dynamic portrayal of Harold Hill in Music Man.
Other than some difficulties that were apparent each time a character turned away from a mike, all aspects of the production measured up to the high level established by the director and cast.
This is a show that appeals to all ages, as my 11-year-old granddaughter, my daughter and I found at a packed Mother's Day matinee.
Oliver! continues through July 19. Call 410-626-7515 for reservations.