The Carnegie Arts Center’s Oliver! has a fine pedigree of its own — a first-class pit, a sweet-voiced young star, a seasoned pro in the key role of Fagin — and nearly wins a place in our hearts. But this production has bigger problems than a misplaced bit of jewelry. Somehow, despite obvious hard work on an epic theater piece, director Gina Kleesattel and company have lost the story. Who are these people? What do they want? What’s driving them to the often desperate actions they take? As the Artful Dodger might say: It’s a licker to me.
Lionel Bart’s musicalization of Charles Dickens’ novel necessarily simplifies the orphan’s tale, shrinking the time frame and reducing dozens of eccentric supporting characters to a handful of stock figures.
Inventive staging and nuanced ensemble acting can restore some detail, but in this cast, only Charlie Clark, as urchin-wrangler Fagin, has a grip on subtext. So the relationships are a muddle: When Madeline Paul’s Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me,” viewers unfamiliar with the show might wonder who she means. (That would be Bill Sykes, played by Jared Ryan, who’s oddly un-threatening as a murderous thug.) Will Graber, meanwhile, sings beautifully as Oliver, but waits for the curtain call to show any charisma.
Musical director James R. Cassidy and members of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra elevate this Oliver! with every number — but what happened to the overture? I suspect other cuts were made for the sake of a kid-friendly running time. More imaginative and strategic scene changes would have better served that cause, while drawing a more vivid, believable world in which the elusive Oliver Twist might be found.
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