OGDEN — Oliver! is the popular Lionel Bart musical based on the classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. The Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden has brought this story to life under the direction of Kyle Lawrence (who also served as music director and sound designer), with choreography by Bryan Andrews. The story follows young Oliver Twist as he is sold into servitude after he takes the risk of asking for more food at the orphanage, escapes his place as a servant and falls in with a group of pickpockets and tries to make his way in the mean streets of London. As in many of the works of Dickens, it paints a dark picture of the many challenges faced by the poor in London in the 1800’s.
The Ziegfeld’s Oliver! has a realistic looking set designed by Johnathan Tucker, augmented by the excellent lighting and projection design by Eliza Haynie and Hayden Wadsworth. Throughout the show, the projections kept the audience informed by summarizing the scene ahead. I was also impressed with the use of darkness to convey some of the mood of the show, plus the contrast of light during the happy moments and red for stronger impact. Alicia Kondrick created excellent costume designs with the right amount of color plus some wear and tear to make it look like the characters had lived in the clothes. As is often the case at the Ziegfeld, there was some trouble with sound mixing, so I was glad to see that the company’s annual fundraiser is for a new sound system. It has been fun to watch the Ziegfeld improve their stage over the years, and improving the sound system would help the Ziegfeld better their productions.
Unlike some of Ziegfeld’s past shows, Oliver! did not feature live music, and I missed that element. Otherwise, the music was strong, especially the vocals Nancy, played by Erica Choffel. Her voice was clear and her accent perfect, and from her first number “It’s a Fine Life” to her iconic balled “As Long As He Needs Me,” I was impressed by her range of emotion. Nancy is a troubled character, facing regular physical abuse and cruelty from her boyfriend, Bill (played menacingly by Tyson Allred). Choffel put enough emotion into the character that I felt the conflict within her; Choffel also helped me see the struggle that too many women face with the questions of why they stay in abusive relationships. Through her performance, Choffel was able to make the tragedy of Oliver! even more poignant via her sympathetic Nancy.
One of the strongest characters of the evening was certainly the fatherly thieving figure of Fagin, played masterfully by Randy Barton. His physical comedy mixed with his mannerisms and voice to make him the perfect fiend. When Barton begins singing “You’ve got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” Fagan had the charms and appearance of caring that could convince a young child to spend his days pick-pocketing. However, by the time he sings the song “Reviewing the Situation,” it is clear that Fagin cares for only one person, himself. Barton nailed every step of the show with his persona and was perhaps the best Fagin I have ever seen.
Of course, shows like Oliver! need a strong young ensemble, and it can be difficult to get a group of young performers to act and dance well enough to please a paying audience. Yet, the chorus of boys and girls playing the orphans and pickpockets were up to the task. I was impressed by the skill of the music under the direction of Lawrence, as well as the choreography by Andrews. One of my favorite songs in this show, “Consider Yourself” was directed, choreographed, and executed entertainingly well. Jack Whitby as the Artful Dodger has a sweet command of the stage and an endearing presence. And of course, the title character, played by Henry Bell, was a good portrayal of an innocent child tossed to and fro by the challenges of poverty and loss. Bell has a calming, soothing voice, and while his acting was passable, his singing of songs such as “Where is Love” elevated the show.
While Oliver! is a musical that is now over 50 years old, it remains relevant as a statement on how society treats its poorest members and how people can manipulate those they may claim to care for. The Ziegfeld has done a commendable job of infusing both entertainment and thought provoking storytelling within this production.