Today saw me on a quick up-and-back trip to Stratford with friends to see Oliver! The house was packed, the audience expected a good time with a well-known musical, and I was digesting an excellent lunch from the Keystone Alley restaurant. What more could I want?
Oliver! as a revival is a bit of a challenge. The story is maudlin — workhouse waif taken in by thieves is rescued by good-hearted family and turns out to be long lost relative, well maybe. Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical version of Dickens’ story isn’t as dark as the original (perish the thought that we see what Victorian London really looked like). There are so many cheery songs, you might think that the poor really welcomed their lot in life. Children fed on gruel are so cute when they’re in a chorus line.
If the Stratford Festival and director/choreographer Donna Feore had toned down the setting, had given us an Oliver! transplanted from the bright-and-shiny 1960s to the darker 21st century, they would have something really solid here. But this musical, and especially this production, only glimpses what might have been possible.
I must give credit to the acting company: Colm Feore is first rate as Fagin, and his intimate scenes with only a few actors work well because we see the character underneath. Tyler Pearse and Scott Beaudin shine as Oliver and the Artful Dodger, and the large cast of young actors gives no sense of amateurism. Blythe Wilson, as Nancy, has a showstopper number with As Long As He Needs Me, but delivers it with no sense of irony (spousal abuse just doesn’t wash these days) and at a scale well out of proportion to the rest of the production.
The problems here lie with the direction and choreography. The opening chorus of Food, Glorious Food contains too much movement for its own sake — a parade of kiddies around their table and past the gruel pot. Later sequences flood the Festival stage with dancers, but we could have done without them. All that bright, happy singing and dancing just interrupt the story. Yes, I know it’s a musical, but that doesn’t mean we need an extended dance number dragging out songs that worked fine on their own. Who Will Buy is a poignant call of the market sellers that morphs inexplicably into a ballroom dance totally out of character with the song and the setting.
When I contrast this production with those seen a few weeks ago that really worked, two things stand out: the stage is too full of actors too often, and the cast gets too few chances to interact with each other rather than just performing for us.
Oliver! continues at the Festival Theatre until October 29.