PERRY — It is amazing it has taken me this long to see a production of Oliver! on the stage. Of course, I have seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the musical several times, but never the stage musical. But on Friday night, the Heritage Theatre in Perry gave me this first-time experience. Not only are the book and music for this show wonderful, but the production—flaws and all—is everything a theatre fan could want in small local community theater.
I love big Broadway shows, but the high price tags sometimes makes me less forgiving of problems—even annoyed—if things don’t go right. In contrast, with a smaller production the foibles and hiccups give the piece character and become part of the charm. For example, at the Heritage production, actress Shannon Barton became sick, and so director Lindy Combe had to step-in last minute and perform the role of Mrs. Sowerberry. (Combe also plays Old Sally in a credited regular role.) She had a clipboard with the script, but she knew all the choreography and staging which is hugely impressive even for a director. It is that kind of “the show must go on” attitude that makes local theatre special. At the Heritage Theatre, like everyone, including the audience, does their part to make the night of entertainment work.
In Oliver!, the key to an effective production lies in casting a good actor to play Oliver. Fortunately that is what happened at Heritage, with the effervescent and charming child actor Andrew King. In the playbill, it says this is his seventh role on stage, and this experience shows. All the child actors (I counted a dozen) are great, and the choreography by Liz Rogers and Olivia Page (the latter also playing a small ensemble role) provides energy for the entire production.
Additionally, Colin Turner is fantastic as Dodger, and he probably has the best accent of any actor on stage—including the adults. Speaking of the adults, they are all having a great time, with Danielle Carlisle giving an especially strong performance as Nancy. Garrett Ashby and S. Brett Herron round out the strong cast as Fagin and Bill Sikes, respectively, both giving the show the appropriate amount of danger and villainy.
I don’t think I realized how many banger songs there are in Oliver! until this viewing. Some of the highlights include “Food Glorious Food,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Consider Yourself,” and “I’d Do Anything.” “As Long as He Needs Me” is probably the most famous song from the show, and it is made more memorable because it is such a bittersweet moment for Nancy. Carlisle is excellent at capturing the desperation of the character as she sings a hopeful song about such a worthless man. It is so heartbreaking to know that she needs to leave her abusive relationship with Bill Sikes while she explains why she will never do so.
I always love it in traditional theaters like the Heritage when the action extends beyond the stage and into the aisles and that’s what Combe did in her direction of Oliver!. It helps immerse the audience in the experience and get a close-up view of the actors. In a smaller space, that intimacy is really fun. The costumes by Leslie Richards are also simple but effective in creating the characters. Nancy’s red saloon-style dress is the biggest standout, but all the costumes have a homespun charm to them.
Lionel Bart wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Oliver!, and the play is (of course) based on the classic novel by Charles Dickens. Bart make a lot of changes from the novel, but most of the changes make the show more family-friendly and heart warming; the darker themes of the book have been toned down. In fact, Oliver! at Heritage is a great way to introduce children 4 and older to the theater. The prices are reasonable and it features excellent child actors in nearly every scene.
There is some room for improvement with the production, particularly with the microphones. But this is the kind of show that improves as its run continues. The Heritage Theatre’s production of Oliver! overflows with authentic charm, and I hope readers will participate in the joys of this play and the community theatre experience. I definitely left the theater wanting more.