SALT LAKE CITY – From overture to final-curtain bows, the Grand Theatre’s superb production of Oliver! is a theatrical pleasure. The opening-night audience was fully engaged in the richly drawn Dickens characters and delighted by the infectious enthusiasm and boundless charisma of its impressive cast. The actors clearly love doing the show, are fully invested in their roles, and go all out to sell each song and ensemble.
The play’s five principal characters deliver first-rate performances. Local favorite Max Robinson, the ensemble’s sole Equity member, is the star draw and radiates devious joy as Fagin. He’s both sinister and hilarious, which is just as the character should be. His strong voice is appropriate for the role, and he adds some deliciously deft comic touches. When Robinson first meets the newest member of his gang of pickpockets he grandly bows and says, “I hope I shall have the honour of your intimate acquaintance,” delivering the line with a lisping intensity.
Flame-haired Adrien Swensen brings a lusty vigor to the role of wench Nancy. She charms with “I’d Do Anything” and rouses with a mug-thumping “Oom-Pah-Pah.” Her spine-tingling performance of “As Long as He Needs Me,” Nancy’s defining moment when she debates staying faithful to her man or helping the orphan, is one of the play’s high points. Kit Anderton is a truly chilling Bill Sikes, wielding an axe handle as a prop. He terrifies not just the ensemble but also the audience. When he sings the menacing “My Name,” the Three Cripples Pub patrons cower and slowly scatter out of the bar.
The two young lead performers truly stand out: Max Huftalin as the Artful Dodger and Cayden Maynes as Oliver. Sixteen-year-old Huftalin is supremely charming and has unbounded energy. It is hard to imagine a better performance of Dodger with the glee he brings to the role. The extraordinary twelve-year-old Maynes, as the boy who dares to want more, has a choir-boy sweetness when he sings, and he uses it to good effect in “Who Will Buy.” Sitting among the coffins, Maynes masterfully sings the plaintive “Where Is Love?,” endearing himself to each audience member. He confidently projects his waifish character and proves to be a startlingly fine young actor.
The leads are aptly supported by nine appealing children, playing both workhouse orphans and Fagin’s pickpockets, and a talented ensemble of adults. R.B. Archibald as Mr. Bumble has the best Dickens quip, that the Law knows nothing of marriage because the Law is a bachelor. He knocks out “Boy for Sale” and shows comic flair opposite Widow Corney (a blowzy Phaidre Benicosa-Atkinson), in their ordinarily throwaway duet “I Shall Scream.” Also deserving special mention is Ali Goldsmith in her role as Nancy’s confidante Bet, along with Scott Ferrin as Knife Grinder, Chantelle Bender as Rose Seller and Eva Teranova as Strawberry Seller for the solos they contribute to “Who Will Buy.”
The efficient direction is by Anne Stewart Mark. She has wisely whittled down the show’s running time with a few judicious cuts. This production moves swiftly, when not stalled by set changes, and the director makes good use of her talented troupe throughout. The sumptuous costumes, by Brenda Van der Wiel, perfectly suit the time period and the show. Jared Porter did the ambitious set design. The bright six-member live pit orchestra, led by Kevin Mathie, could only be improved by larger crescendos during a song’s final notes. Jesse Portillo crafted the effective lighting design.
Oliver! has considerable historical significance. It is one of the few West End musicals to find success on Broadway before the British invasion of the 1970s. On opening night at London’s New Theatre in 1960 (yes, 50 years ago), it was greeted with 23 curtain calls. During that 2,618-performance run, the show landed on the west coast, playing first to audiences in Los Angeles before proceeding on to New York the following year. Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, was the first Briton to win the Tony as a composer. While the 1968 movie version won a Best Picture Academy Award, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was awarded Best Musical and four other 1963 Tonys. A 1984 Broadway revival failed.
Truth be told, Oliver! is not a favorite musical. I doubt it’d crack my top 50 list. It takes Oliver Twist, one of Dickens’ most gripping novels that protests man’s inhumanity to the downtrodden, and turns it into a night of largely chipper entertainment. (And Dickens wrote from experience; his family was in dire economic circumstances after his father’s bankruptcy that forced Charles into work at a young age.) The book’s opening chapters attack England’s new Poor Laws system that allowed the workhouse children to “suffer the torture of slow starvation.” Yet the musical opens with the cheery chorus of “Food, Glorious Food.” Bart was a great tunesmith but, by omitting Dickens’ social anger, was a maladroit storyteller. It’s been called a travesty of Dickens. But it’s also fantastic showbiz.