With well-known songs like “Where is Love,” “Consider Yourself,” and “Who Will Buy,” “Oliver!” can be considered one of the best known and beloved musicals of the 20th century. Because of this, it has been frequently produced over the years. However, KAT’s production of this musical makes a bold thematic choice that casts this musical in a new light, giving the audience some social commentary with their show-tunes.
“Oliver!” the musical is based on the classic Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. It tells the story of a young boy, Oliver (Cody Yeatman) born in a workhouse during the Industrial Revolution in England. His mother dies soon after his birth, and he is brought up in the workhouse for the next 11 years. However, one day, hungry and exhausted, he asks for one more morsel of food. This throws the workhouse caretakers, Mr. Bumble (Todd Hahn) and the Widow Corney (Meghan Willams Elkins) into a fury, with the former ending up selling him to a mortician and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Matthew August and Lauren-Nicole Gabel.)
KAT’s production of this musical makes a bold thematic choice that casts this musical in a new light, giving the audience some social commentary with their show-tunes.
After being terrorized by fellow employees Noah Claypole (Emily Lawrence) and Charlotte (Allison Meyer), Oliver runs away and is indoctrinated to London street life by the Artful Dodger (Cole Edelstein.) He introduces him to Fagin (Brian Lyons-Burke), who with his army of pick-pocketing children, runs a successful street business. He also meets the sweet but tough Nancy (Justine Summers), who takes an instant shine to Oliver. Her and Bet (Gracie Albus) join the children for some fun before they head out to work.
However, when a pick-pocketing goes wrong, Oliver is caught by wealthy gentleman Mr. Brownlow (Jack Mayo). When he realizes that Oliver was just a pawn, he is taken in by him and his housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin (Nicola Hoag.) Meanwhile, Nancy’s menacing paramour, Bill Sykes (Bryan Dauglash), becomes enraged when he thinks that Oliver might report on his activities with Fagin to the police, and enlists Nancy’s very reluctant help to kidnap Oliver. Also, new information about Oliver’s mother’s identity emerges, exposing a shocking secret. Will Oliver find happiness and safety?
First and foremost with this production, it is important to understand the lens with which it is being viewed. Director John Nunemaker opted to use a Steampunk theme for this production; Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. This is primarily represented with the use of cogs, present in the set, on costume pieces, and interestingly, on the faces and skin of the performers. Oliver is a well-known musical and has been a popular choice for community theatres, making it sometimes well-worn territory. This bold choice really pays off for KAT, as it allows this well-known and loved musical to be experienced in a whole new way.
While much of the music in this show is upbeat and buoyant sounding, it belies the truly dire situations in which many of the characters find themselves. With the Steampunk lens and the grittiness of both the make-up and costumes, it makes the assertion that many of these people are human cogs within the Industrial Revolution machine, adding shades of meaning to these characters and songs. To this reviewer, it gave pause to several characters that are usually presented as villains- many of them are very poor, and have lived their lives on the street. While their actions are still deplorable, you are able to better develop empathy for people who perhaps are victims themselves of their own circumstance.
The thematic elements are just the beginning of this strong production. There is an abundance of talent in this cast, with multiple standout performances. Young Yeatman does well with a difficult vocal part as well as a tough accent. He brings both the pluck and sweetness required for this role; tugging on heartstrings during the famous tune “Where is Love.”
Summers brings a complex interpretation and a powerhouse voice to the part of Nancy. This role can sometimes be a tough one since sometimes audiences wonder why she does not abandon her abusive relationship with Bill Sykes. However, Summers does an excellent job of showing the heartbreaking motivations of this character – not only does she think this life is the best she can get, she truly believes it’s what she deserves. This is what drives her to try and rescue Oliver – she sees herself as a product of life on the street, and wants to give Oliver a chance to get out. This is richly felt in her number “As Long as He Needs Me.”
Another standout is Lyons-Burke. Fagin is a selfish crook, but this show doesn’t work if the audience isn’t charmed by him. And Lyons-Burke brings charm and expert comedy in spades. In particular, “Reviewing the Situation” shines a light into the heart (or lack thereof) of this character, and the depths of his selfishness. However, as previously stated, the theme, along with Lyons-Burke’s thoughtful portrayal, allows the audience to empathize a bit more with a wily old man scraping by.
With a huge cast, it’s hard to call out all of the impressive work of this cast, but there are a few more that come to mind. The Sowerberry’s (August and Gabel) brought an impressive physicality to their roles and were charmingly spooky as the undertakers. Their song “That’s Your Funeral” was macabre fun. The team of Bumble and Corney (Hahn and Williams-Elkins) were also enjoyable, delivering both comedy and menace. Williams Elkins’ soaring soprano launched “I Shall Scream” into the stratosphere and Hahn did a great performance of a well-known song from this show, “Boy for Sale.” Dauglash thoroughly impressed me with his Billy Sykes, both on its own merit, but also because it is a complete 180 from his last role on the KAT stage, Anthony Hope in “Sweeney Todd.” He is menacing and clearly terrifying to everyone around him; however, there is also a desperation that comes through during moments, providing depth to what can sometimes be an almost cartoonish villain.
Albus does well as Bet, showcasing her lovely voice on “It’s a Fine Life” and “I’d Do Anything.” Mayo and Hoag provide a loving contrast to the rough treatment that Oliver sees from other characters in the show, and “Who Will Buy” was a stunning number, both vocally and in dance (top-drawer solo work from Meyer, Alison Starr, and Lauren Jay Pacuit.)
Finally, the children in the show were exceptional. Edelstein, recently off the road from the National Tour of “Matilda the Musical,” aptly led a strong group of young performers. He imbued perhaps the most recognizable song of the show, “Consider Yourself” with energy and vigor, and had both sharp vocals and dance moves. The children’s ensemble did very well both at the beginning of the show, for “Food Glorious Food,” and then later for the final five numbers of Act I.
The technical aspects of the show were the final piece of the puzzle of success for KAT’s production of “Oliver!.” The full orchestra brought depth to these well-known songs and was lead expertly by Music Director and keyboardist Paul Rossen. Coupled with that, the sound design was excellent- in the huge space at Kensington Town Hall, sometimes voices can get lost or overwhelmed by the live music. Matthew Mills and Andrew Stainer did a great job.
One of the most striking aspects of the show were the dynamic costumes, hair, and make-up designs. These costumes were well executed and unique- they not only served the Steampunk theme but also made logical sense for the characters. One great example is the eyepiece worn by Dr. Grimwig (Matthew Reeser)- as a doctor, it made sense but was a fascinating addition to his look. Nunemaker did double (triple?) duty by also designing hair and make-up for the show, greatly assisting in the gritty and automatonic feel of the piece.
The choreography was also perfectly balanced- it was never too difficult for the large group numbers, allowing a cohesiveness with the cast’s performance, but choreographer Nancy Scales Harry also utilized her more advanced dancers in special moments that were dynamic highlights. Overall, it was an interesting new interpretation of a well-known and beloved classic.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: While this show is fun for most audiences, there are scenes of violence throughout, and two characters are killed onstage towards the end of the show. Please be advised- recommended for audiences 10 and older.
“Oliver!” is now playing through Sunday, May 26th, 2019. For more information on tickets, click here.