A glorious `Oliver!' at Lyric

Production brings kaleidoscope of scenes to stage

TheaterReview

March 26, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Consider "Consider Yourself." In Oliver!, it's the number in which young Oliver Twist makes the acquaintance of the Artful Dodger and, in the process, gets his first glimpse of London street life.

And, in the touring version of Oliver! at the Lyric Opera House, what a splendid glimpse it is!

Under the direction of Graham Gill, with choreography by Matthew Bourne, this street scene is played out on two levels. With various London buildings gliding by in the background, the scene features merchants, washerwomen and even a couple of mimes.

As he introduces Justin S. Pereira's wide-eyed Oliver to this bustling, colorful milieu, Andrew Blau's gleefully limber Dodger juggles some of a baker's wares, then joins in with the mimes.

And that's only a preview of the exuberance that erupts a few numbers later in "I'd Do Anything" (the show's kaleidoscopic sets and costumes are by Adrian Vaux and Anthony Ward, respectively). In this case, the Dodger and Renata Renee Wilson's Nancy pretend to be swells, plunking themselves down on a trunk that is first transformed into a make-believe carriage with four urchins pretending to be horses, and then becomes a snazzy skiff, with a sail made from a sheet attached to a broom.

A non-union touring version of the lavish 1994 London revival of the Lionel Bart musical (produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Sam Mendes), the production is basically solid. It's during the big production numbers, however, that the show bursts into vibrant life.

That's also indicative of how far Bart's musical strays in tone - and in some cases, subject matter - from Charles Dickens' often dark and always gritty 19th-century novel, Oliver Twist.

Instead of a horrifying look at life in lower-class London, the musical - though retaining one especially brutal (but partially obscured) murder - is so cleaned up, it's an ideal show to introduce children to the world of musical theater.

Even heinous Fagin, who runs a gang of child-pickpockets, comes across as a rather fatherly figure; indeed, he's the first adult to show runaway Oliver any kindness (however self-serving that may be). So tall and thin that he towers over the kids like a specter, Mark McCracken portrays Fagin as a loose-limbed, wisecracking figure, somewhat reminiscent of Danny Kaye.

As Oliver, Pereira - a 12-year-old from Silver Spring - is a spunky performer who looks like a smudge-faced cherub. His sweet singing voice can be plaintive, in "Where is Love?", or chipper, in "Who Will Buy?"

The only major player who disappoints is Wilson as Nancy. Performing in her first post-college production, Wilson has vocal power, but her acting is too ladylike, lacking the gusto, and later, the angst, necessary to flesh out this tragic figure.

The production does include a few rather grim production numbers. "Oom-Pah-Pah," which opens the second act, begins with a smoky view of a bare-knuckle boxing match. Similarly, "Food, Glorious Food," the show's opening number, paints a gloomy picture of life in the children's workhouse, with the little inmates singing in dour tones as they percussively stack their metal gruel bowls.

But "Food, Glorious Food" also contains occasional tinges of humor. Scrumptious imaginary dishes are carted across the room, and at one point the faces of the workhouse children are illuminated by little lights inside their empty bowls. Combined with crisp singing and choreography, the number immediately suggests that this production is on the right track. And the next two-and-a-half hours stand as proof.

The first major American touring production of this Dickens musical in more than three decades, this is an Oliver! that earns its exclamation point.

Oliver!

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow; matinees at 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday

Tickets: $38-$73

Call: 866-597-4200

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