MAGNA — I have been going to the theatre since I was a young child and have participated both on stage and off for longer than I can remember. Because of this, it is rare that I have not seen at least some production of a show, unless it has recently been written. So the fact that I have never seen Oliver! on stage was somewhat exciting for me. I have, of course, seen the movie version and know many of the songs by heart. When given the opportunity to see a live community production, I realized this was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Oliver! is the musical version of the classic Charles Dickens story about an orphan boy who is longing for love and acceptance. He is also hungry for food, and the whole story starts when the child has the audacity to ask for more gruel at the orphanage. Throughout the story, the audience sees what happens to a young child in England without family and protectors.
Although Oliver! was a popular movie, and a very popular musical, it is not the easiest to perform. I commend the cast at the Empress Theatre for taking on this challenge. Within the show are themes such as poverty, abuse, dishonesty, and much more. Several of the characters have unhappy endings, and this can be a difficult thing to portray, especially in community theatre. The cast at the Empress did a great job of balancing the fun songs and memorable parts of the show with the deeper story lines and the difficult subject matter.
The role of Oliver was played by Ravin Johnson, who did a fine job. Oliver is a sweet, innocent character. Throughout the show, he encounters numerous conflicts and situations while remaining innocent and hopeful, and Johnson portrayed it well. I especially enjoyed the song “Where is Love?” and felt that he was a great casting choice.
I also want to commend the chorus of young children. They were all wonderful in the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food.” I was particularly impressed that although a few of the cast members could not have been more than four or five, the choreography in songs such as “Consider Yourself,” “Pick a Pocket or Two,” and “It’s a Fine Life” was quite complicated, and these young actors met the task with ease. It was very enjoyable to watch. Credit for the choreography goes to Chalese Craig.
I need to take a moment and mention the over all staging in this production. When I first got to the theater, I noticed that the stage was rather small, however very well situated. Thanks to the great set design and construction by Devin Johnson and Bennie Nugter, there was a second level and a few extra places built for additional scenes. Looking through the program, one might feel a little concerned that this cast might be too large and would overwhelm the stage. This is where I need to give credit to the overall direction of Rebecca Walk. Walk seemed to understand the dynamics of the space in that theater, and she used those dynamics to her advantage. The actors were spread throughout the theater during the large numbers, and much of the action was also spread out, using all the space available. It kept me engaged and entertained, and showed that Walk had spent a great deal of time planning how to make certain that the audience was able to enjoy the show from every angle.
While each of the cast members did well, I do feel that a few of them stood out in ways that deserve special mention. The character of Bill Sykes, played by Michael S. Johnson had a great command of the roll of an evil man. The audience does not see much of him until the second act. However, when he came on stage and sang the song “My Name,” I had several impressions. My first thought was that I really did feel scared of this man! My second impression was how well Johnson portrayed this role. He sang the song with an evil, gruff voice, a tactic I have seen with numerous villainous characters. However I have noticed that often singing in this way, actors have a tendency to sing off pitch. Not so with Johnson as his pitch and tone were amazing. My final thought regarding this actor is that I hope he may someday get the opportunity to play the title role in Jekyll and Hyde. I would love to be in attendance.
I was very impressed with the slightly unorthodox, though not unheard of, decision to have the role of Dodger played by a young woman, Sheridan Walk. She has a lovely voice, and as she sang one of the shows most popular songs, “Consider Yourself,” she had a crisp, clear tone that carried well throughout the theater. The young Walk did struggle a little with nerves and forgot a line here and there, but with practice this young lady has the potential to be a wonderful actress.
Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, played by Daniel Burk and Betsy Christianson, provided a surprising amount of comic relief. I found myself delighted whenever they came on stage. In particular, the song “I Shall Scream,” was full of interesting comedic timing and a great deal of fun.
The character of Nancy is an important one in the production of Oliver!, and Valerie J. Packer was certainly up to the task. Packer has an amazingly strong voice, and that voice carried throughout the entire theater. When she sang “It’s a Fine Life” with her cohort Bet, played by Cheryl Cripps, I knew immediately I was going to enjoy her portrayal. The highlight of her performance was the song “As Long as He Needs Me.” This is actually a very difficult song to sing, and a difficult part of the story to tell. Packer really worked to have empathy for her character in telling the audience why such a woman would continue to be with a person who treats her so abusively.
Overall, this was quite an amazing production. I was moved by the fact that a community theatre would choose to do a show that entertains and also leaves the audience with reason to truly ponder. My friend and I left that night discussing the way life in England during that time must have been, and why Dickens chose to tell that story. I felt enriched and impressed by the experience, and feel that is why I go to theatre. Also impressive were the young actors who were able to be a part of this story. If the quality of this show is any indication, the staff at the Empress Theatre is able to excel at helping young people understand the importance of the arts and how it enriches lives and enhances the culture of those who embrace it.