SALT LAKE CITY — If there’s a surprise in store for audiences of Pioneer Theatre Company’s latest production of a show based on a Charles Dickens novel and scheduled in the season’s December slot, it’s that it isn’t called A Christmas Carol. Speaking of surprises, I feel a little caught off guard to find myself throwing out the word “refreshing” to describe such a traditional production of so well known a musical as Lionel Bart’s Oliver!. Perhaps that just goes to show how much context can affect one’s impressions, or perhaps it is a testament to the timeless nature of the show’s score.
In any event, even before the overture begins, George Maxwell’s set presents a microcosm of precisely what one expects from Oliver!: a dirty, foggy 19th-century London constructed precariously from wood, stone, and brick. What appears to be the rusty arch of the underside of a bridge spans the top of the proscenium. It serves as a reminder of our tendency to hide societal problems—such as poverty and hunger—just outside our field of vision, so we can pass over them quickly enough to keep from having to consider them too seriously or too often.
The story of Oliver Twist (played by Maxwell Rimington), the orphan who famously asks the workhouse beadle, Mr. Bumble (Kevin Ligon), for more gruel, is not a Christmas or holiday story, strictly speaking. However, Oliver’s life does tap into the broader themes common to those narratives, such as suffering, charity, and sacrifice. After the workhouse and a brief stint with an undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (James Michael Reilly), Oliver falls in with a gang of juvenile thieves and pickpockets under the power of the avaricious, if not entirely heartless, Fagin (Bill Nolte). Some of the older members of Fagin’s circle of colleagues—such as the charismatic Artful Dodger (Christian Labertew), Fagin’s chief lieutenant, and the sympathetic Nancy (Natalie Hill)—give Oliver’s new life a folksy, friendly veneer. But the entrance of Bill Sykes (Howard Kaye) serves as a reminder of its more sinister undercurrents and the dangers it presents to anyone in a vulnerable position. This is brought to the forefront after Oliver comes under the protection of the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Richard Scott), and the difficulty of fully escaping his short time among the thieves leads to tension that results in both redemption and tragedy.
The principal cast members acquit themselves with polished, professional aplomb. Nolte, as Fagin, focuses his performance through protuberant eyes, glimmering with perspicacity (if his also protuberant false nose borders on the cartoonish). Labertew makes for a savvy, likable Artful Dodger and Hill does justice to the lovely, tragic figure of Nancy. Rimington embodies the title role with a natural, open-faced earnestness. As an example by contrast, at one point in “Consider Yourself,” one of his lines came across as too slick and contemporary for his character. Both director Karen Azenberg and Rimington deserve credit for ensuring that this was a lone exception in a consistently unaffected interpretation, underscoring its overall effectiveness.
Once the workhouse is over, I usually find that the quality of a given production of Oliver! is inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes to get Oliver from the workhouse to meeting Dodger. The scenes at the Sowerberrys’ funeral parlor, born of the serial nature of the novel, employ one-off characters and do little to forward the plot. What entertainment value they have hinges on the successful realization of Dickensian character tropes, which is strangely all too infrequent. Fortunately, Reilly and Carol Schuberg’s delightfully droll performances elevate the Sowerberrys to one of the highlights of the evening. Schuberg speaks with a calculated, imperious monotone that also enhances an implacable physicality. Reilly possesses that rare stage presence that imbues the most inconsequential of parts with a memorable flash of life—even in a subdued character like Sowerberry. Reilly returns later in the show as Dr. Grimwig, who repeatedly exclaims that if such-and-such happens, he’ll “eat his head.” The unfunniness of the line is usually compounded by its being entrusted to unremarkable actors. However, in the hands of the engaging Reilly, the characterization furnishes a humor not native to the words themselves, making them both entertaining and memorable.
Patrons who only know the 1968 film version will be unpleasantly surprised by the larger roles that Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney (Linda Griffin) take in the theatrical adaptation. Instead of segueing straight from “Oliver!” into “Boy for Sale,” the stage version indulges in a painful detour through the flirtations of these two unsavory characters in “I Shall Scream.” Ligon and Griffin are in no way to blame for this. In fact, their performances yielded perhaps the most enjoyable take on this episode I have yet seen. Despite their admirable efforts, however, the scene remains an unnecessary distraction that weakens the structure and pacing of the overall piece.
On the subject of pace, it is easy for large, gloomy 19th-century period productions to trip over themselves and collapse under their own weight if they do not move along briskly, and Azenberg deserves praise for keeping this production remarkably light on its feet. The only time I checked my watch was when the first act ended and I couldn’t believe that it was over so soon. Still, there were occasional moments that would have benefited from an extra beat or two. “Where Is Love?” would have landed better if there had been a chance for the audience to draw an emotional breath. Likewise, Nancy’s death was so brief and felt so self-consciously staged that anyone who didn’t know she was supposed to die might not have realized it. Moreover, in the ensuing chaos, the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, reappears with a measuring tape. Though he didn’t deliberately upstage the moment, his presence is enough to induce a chuckle or two, introducing whimsy at exactly the wrong juncture. Nancy deserves better.
But at a time of year that exemplifies “empty larder days” in terms of the variety of shows on the boards, why grouse? These objections aside, Oliver!’s universal themes and lovely score, always such a pleasure to hear performed with a live orchestra, give it broad appeal and make for a good holiday alternative to the more standard offerings in the area. Glad as I was that the Ghost of Christmas Present did not find any of his “elder brothers born in these later years” wandering the Pioneer Theatre Company stage, there is one element worth mentioning that Oliver! and A Christmas Carol have in common. Just as Ignorance and Want emerge from beneath Christmas Present’s robe, so do they peer up at us from their place under the rusty proscenium bridge—and Oliver! reminds us that taking them seriously remains as important as ever this season.