Walnut Street Theatre’s Oliver!: Consider Yourself A Hit
Oliver! takes one of Dickens’ greatest and most gripping novels - a mournful outcry against man's inhumanity to man - and turns it into a cracking night of tuneful entertainment. What other show could make you break into a huge grin of pleasure when in the opening number dozens of supposedly half-starved, workhouse children take to the stage? Now playing at the Walnut Street Theatre, Oliver! is sure to a family favorite during the holidays.
This musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of an orphan, Oliver Twist, who is sold to a Dunstable undertaker after asking for more dinner at the orphanage. Escaping to London, he is taken in by Fagin, an elderly mentor, to join his gang of child pickpockets. Wrongly accused of a theft, he meets a more kindly gentleman who takes him in, much to the concern of one of Fagin's old pupils, the violent Bill Sykes. In the middle of all this is Nancy, Sykes' girl whom Oliver has come to trust.
Oliver! is a British musical, with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Premiered in the West End in 1960, Oliver! enjoyed a long run, a successful Broadway production in 1963.
The magical score is full of Lionel Bart’s irresistible songs including “Food Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “You’ve Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two,” “I’d Do Anything,” and “As Long As He Needs Me.”
Gregory Smith of Media, PA and Sam Preston of Franklinville, NJ are double cast in the title role; Brandon O’Rourke, of Philadelphia and RJ Fattori of Glen Mills, PA are featured as the Artful Dodger. Young Smith, Walnut’s “Tiny Tim,” was featured for opening night and a fine choice for the title role as he is childlike of course, but more importantly believable in the part with an angelic voice. O’Rourke’s Artful Dodger is gutsy, confident and animated as he nails “Consider Yourself.”
Janine Divita plays Nancy with a bit more spunk than warmth, yet wringing every last ounce of emotion from “As Long as He Needs Me.” The grisly Bill Sykes played by Anthony Lawton, stomps around the stage invoking enough fear to reach the fifth row.
Broadway veteran and Philly native Hugh Panaro returns to the Walnut as Fagin. Hugh last appeared at the Walnut in his Barrymore Award-winning turn as Jean Valjean. Panaro plays the role of Fagin like a Red Skelton hobo with heart. He is an animated, lovable scoundrel who adds layers to this character with his “guess what I’m going to do next” approach. I’m smelling another Barrymore nomination.
The children's ensemble, looking much like the offspring of Les Miserables, sing, dance and completely dazzle the crowd. The adult ensemble numbers “Who Will Buy?” And “Oom-Pah-Pah” are also an outstanding credit to director Michael Clements and Choreographer Mary Jane Houdina.
The entire cast, which is about 70 people and the largest in Walnut’s history, sport stiff Cockney accents that seem more natural than forced, adding a measure of charm to this classic and beloved musical.
Scott Greer and Mary Martello play Mr. Bumble and widow Corney. The two Philly favorites, both masters at comedy, pair up once again to contribute to the comedic relief, as does the zany and often off the wall Rob McClure in his role as Noah Claypole, Oliver’s nitwit adversary.
The cast is rounded out by Buddy as Bullseye, sidekick pooch to Bill Sykes. Buddy is a hearing impaired American Bulldog and a rescue dog trained to respond exceptionally well to hand commands.
Multi-level set designs by Todd Edward Ivins are clever and effectively whirl us around the buildings and dark alleys of London before taking us underground to Fagin's lair.
Bernard Havard and company will not have to wonder “Who Will Buy” this winning holiday show. It’s a sure sell.
OLIVER! runs at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia through January 10. For tickets and information, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787. Tickets are also available on line by visiting www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or Ticketmaster.
Production Photos by Mark Garvin