Oliver!, the Lionel Bart musical based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, can be a tough theatrical nut to crack.
On one level, it comes off as a male counterpart to Annie, what with workhouse orphan boys extolling the glories of food and singing pickpockets beckoning young Oliver to consider himself one of the family.
But the backdrop for it all is 19th-century London in the frightful throes of the Industrial Revolution. And as Dickens made clear for all time, neglect, exploitation, abuse and murder quickly dispel the optimism of tomorrow being only a day away - though, thank heavens, things come out right for Oliver by story's end.
So we're left with a "children's show" that, in reality, is anything but, as life's darkest elements insinuate themselves into that bright, peppy score so full of hits such as "Food, Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself" and "I'd Do Anything."
Add to this the pitfalls of having to entrust such mature themes (along with copious amounts of singing and dancing) to the younger male set, and you have a show that's tripped up more than one community theater outfit over the years.
I'm happy to report that that hasn't happened to 2nd Star Productions, which has mounted an Oliver! that will play weekends at the Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park through Oct. 1. Blessed as they are with a top-flight Fagin, a hearty Nancy and an Oliver who's not only cute but quite affecting in the title role, the 2nd Star folks have embraced the full measure of this elusive show.
Jonathan Glickman, surely one of the area's most versatile musical actors, is quite something as Fagin, the roguish crook whose specialty is getting young boys to steal for him. With immense subtlety, he works Fagin's ethnicity into a wonderful "Reviewing the Situation," with the character's Jewishness underscored by marvelous violin lines delivered nicely from the 2nd Star pit.
Fagin's sinister side is offset by Glickman's delightful entry into the "I'd Do Anything" soft-shoe, and numerous other takes that imbue the sleazy opportunist with a measure of humanity. Glickman is one of the few actors around who can create a character when he's nowhere near center stage, so if you've ever wondered what "staying in character" means, have a look at him here.
As Oliver, Zachary Fadler is a charmer from the get-go, whether protecting himself from abuse at the Sowerberry mortuary (great fight!), or declaring his affection for Nancy in "I'd Do Anything."
Tiffany Shannon, who spent August as a perplexed Mary Magdalene in Top Hat's Jesus Christ Superstar, gets to sparkle and belt as Nancy, the well-intentioned barmaid doomed to co-dependency (and worse) by her love for the malevolent Bill Sikes. If there's a problem, it's that she comes off more a slave to masochism than to love, so one-dimensionally nasty is David O'Brien's Bill.
Other commendable contributions come from David Dickey, who charms as the Artful Dodger (though his voice will soon change out of the role), Scott Hancock as the bumbling Mr. Bumble, the featured singers who warble "Who Will Buy" like angels, and set designer Lynne Wilson, whose evocation of dark, dreary London gives the whole cast something to play off.
I wish the English accents were better, the pacing in Act II a little sharper, and that a few more orphans were watching the audience instead of their feet. Still, even early in the run, "It's a Fine Life" over in Bowie.
Information and reservations: 410-757-5700 or 301-858-7245.