A full house for opening night of Cincinnati Shakespeare’s 20th season was warmed with affable speeches by the leadership team of Brian Phillips and Lettie Van Hemert. When the audience calls out pre-show punch lines in unison, you know you have a friendly house.
Michael Evan Haney, an associate artist at the Cincinnati Playhouse (which means more Haney-directed shows beyond the Playhouse) ably directs Neil Bartlett adaptation of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ classic orphan tale. While it features several songs, it’s definitely not the jaunty 1960 musical Oliver! Cast and audience took a few scenes to settle into a groove between the grim and the humorous. I struggled to find “boy in casket” funny, but I suspect the laughs had to do with the comedic chops of these fine actors.
Dickens set the stage for these off-rhythms in his 1838 novel’s text: “It is the custom on the stage in all good, murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes in as regular alternation as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon.”
Some of CSC’s moments were better cured than others, including Sara Clark’s Artful Dodger, Miranda McGee’s Mrs.
Corney and Billy Chase’s drunken Mr. Bumble. Jeremy Dubin inhabited the character of Fagin with tremendous physicality, but the accent he employed challenged my understanding of much of his second act monologue. Andrew Hungerford’s exquisite set and lighting designs offered breathtaking, painterly tableaus. Haney and Hungerford are a formidable team, and it would be a treat to see more of this pairing.
In his CSC debut, Ethan Verderber maintains a quiet sweetness as Oliver, whether he is being tossed around, beaten or sleeping from the sheer exhaustion of chronic mistreatment. In one of the final, lovely tableaus, he watches Fagin disintegrate. It is a beautifully rendered stage picture of a weary, unafraid child.
The charming cast reminds us that good triumphs and hope flourishes. Since we continue to turn children out into the streets in massive numbers to scenarios even worse than Dickens imagined, it felt a more fitting tribute to CSC itself. Kudos to the survival and triumph of one of only five U.S. theaters to produce all 38 Shakespeare plays by the end of this season.
OLIVER TWIST, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Sept. 29.