- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

Fagin must have slipped in some Red Bull along with the gin he notoriously administers to the child beggars under his tutelage. That might explain the caffeinated speed of Olney Theatre Center’s production of “Oliver!,” Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of the dark fable about the haves and have-nots by Charles Dickens.

To his credit, director Brad Watkins knows that many audience members for this musical may be fidgety children, and keeps the time at a little over two hours. But there is such a thing as a show running too fast, which results in a loss of nuance and repose.

You don’t notice the pace so much in the uptempo production numbers, such as the show’s opening number, a soaring ode to hunger, “Food Glorious Food,” and Fagin’s (Andrew Long) gleefully craven introduction to the life of petty crime, “Consider Yourself.”

Yet during the slower moments, the twin heart-piercing songs about profound loneliness and despair — “Where Is Love?” and “As Long As He Needs Me” — are rushed along as if the actors have an urgent appointment awaiting them outside the theater.

One of the few places the musical gets to exhale is in “Who Will Buy?” where a parade of street vendors tout their wares in the early morning. Cast members Eleasha Gamble, Monica Lijewski, Katherine E. Hill and Wendell Jordan combine a deliberate pace and exquisite harmonies to give this number the dramatic weight it deserves.

Still, “Oliver!” is “Oliver!” and it hasn’t been dazzling audiences since 1960 for nothing. Mr. Bart’s score skillfully combines operatic trills with classic Broadway melodies and the catchy rhythms and deceptively simple lyrics of early 1960s pop music. The songs in “Oliver!” are immediately accessible to all ages, especially children, who can also easily relate to the story about Oliver Twist (Ethan Langsdorf-Willoughby), an orphan lad who learns that good and evil come from all economic brackets as he makes his way through Victorian London.

After an unhappy stay at a workhouse presided over by the greedy Mr. Bumble (beautifully sung and delicately articulated by Stephen Carter-Hicks) — where Oliver is kicked out for requesting more gruel — he is “adopted” by Fagin and his band of ragamuffins headed by the Artful Dodger (Adam Donovan).

Fagin and Dodger show the boy the ways of the streets in “Pick A Pocket or Two,” in which Mr. Long, a classical actor we’re used to seeing in straight dramatic roles, displays a nimble singing voice that is a happy surprise. His Fagin is raffish and playful, a criminal certainly, but one full of charisma.

Oliver is not suited for a life of crime, however. He is caught his first day out and is taken in by the man he tried to pickpocket, the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Thomas A. Simpson).

As benevolent as Mr. Brownlow is, good people also exist on the wrong side of the tracks, namely Nancy (Peggy Yates), one of Fagin’s former thieves who has been promoted to the rank of prostitute. Nancy may be in a long-term abusive relationship with the burglar Bill Sikes (Brian Sgambati), but also recognizes a fellow sufferer when she sees one, and endangers her own life to save Oliver’s.

Nancy is a problematic character, and no production has ever satisfactorily solved the dilemma of her big number, “As Long As He Needs Me,” which is basically a glorious hymn to woman-beating. Peggy Yates recalls the original Nancy, actress Georgia Brown, in the timbre of her voice and the unstoppable life force of her portrayal. Miss Lijewski also brings rich vocals and deft musical comedy moves to the character of the Widow Corney, Mr. Bumble’s equally avaricious partner-in-crime.

The gang of pickpockets are adorably raggle-taggle and sing in those sweet tenor tones you rarely hear outside a boy choir. However, sound problems throughout the show marred their vocals and the audience’s enjoyment of Mr. Bart’s lyrics. The children could probably back down on the lower class English accents, which get in the way of their singing and delivery of lines.

Olney’s “Oliver!” is perfectly acceptable, but somehow, like the main character, you are left wanting more.


WHAT: “Oliver!” music and lyrics by Lionel Bart

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 31.

TICKETS: $29 to $39

PHONE: 301/924-3400


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