I was concerned that I may have watched several adaptations of Charles Dickens Oliver, and was particularly reluctant of another sit in. However, Champaign-Urbana Theatre Companys production of Oliver Twist musical is like nothing I have ever seen before. Director Jessica Elliott connects the world imagined by Dickens with our contemporary world of hunger, homelessness and lack of other basic needs, perhaps Implying a current American city, with the results strikingly relevant, fresh and unsurprisingly similar. I dare say that the sit-in was worth every minute of the two hours run.
Oliver, the Musical, is a story of Oliver Twist, the protagonist, a workhouse orphan who get banished from his abode after his infamous request please, sir I want some more rubs the wrong way on his host (Dickens 22). He is sold to a local undertaker as a servant, where he undergoes repeated cruelty after which he decides to break for London. He is then taken in by a flamboyant young man- Artful Dodger, as he calls himself. Dodger promises Oliver free lodging if he agrees to meet a respectable gentleman by the name Fagin. Fagin is a gang leader, specializing in pick pocketing and petty larceny, Oliver is quickly initiated into the life of crime (Dickens 67). Luckily, as the story reaches its climax, Oliver, in a big twist of fate falls into the hands of a soft-hearted woman named Nancy. Nancy begins Olivers story of hope for a different life.
Dickens Oliver consists of a great number of kid characters and as I came to learn, the production was intending to give as much exposure as possible to its youthful actors and actresses. As such, the cast was made of several teenagers some of whom were making their debut in the mainstream theatre performance. Likewise, the production was meant to give the local people an opportunity to support local talents by showing up to watch the play, from its premier to the end. The choice of the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre was also a good move as the theater is convenient for most live performance fans and can actually carry a considerable amount of people.
The stage designed spectacularly by James Dobbs did serve the movement and indeed the mood of the show (Parkland Theatre). Everything happened so methodically, with opening action performed in front of the black curtain. After the first act, the black curtains drew revealing a brick wall in the middle of the stage with a bridge hanging atop. The whole projecting shows the classic skyline of London with a grey mist and thick smog, perhaps foreshadowing the events yet to unfold.
From the first act, the intentions of the show are clear and indeed paid off, as the children character performances indeed produced the biggest memories of the show. The large chorus of adorable children delivered in all fronts. For instance, the excitement of opening the night was apparent during the rendition of the song, Food Glorious Food. The workhouse orphans lead in line with the clear touch of delight exchange of gleeful grins with one another as they went to the stage. The kids naturally settled in their respective roles quickly, putting on a polished performance for all. The dullest of all the audience could not hide their smiles as the first scene ended clearly showing that the show had indeed delivered on its goal of tapping the best from their kid actors and actresses.
I was thrilled to discover such a talented young performer, Ruth Zielke, who cast as Nancy and completely owned the role on the opening night (Thursday) CITATION Par16 \l 1033 (Parkland Theatre). She is a completely promising young and vibrant actress whose youthfulness played out and suited Nancys role far much than I had expected. The sights of her exuberance matched with the numbers of the Fagin boys finally made the sentimental and tragic story of this character making it even more heartbreaking at the end.
Also, I was amazed by her performance of the song As Long As He Needs Me, as well as her explanation on her reasons for staying with her abuser in spite of the pain she goes through. Her stubborn determination, vulnerability and well balanced emotional side helps keep the character posed and despite the characters overly bad life choices, she was able to avoid making her look passive or pathetic at the end. I later learnt that Zielke has had a number of roles, big roles, before this part, and no wonder she did such an amazing job handling such an emotionally difficult character. If Madison Gardner who had alternated the role is as good as Zielke, then the character of Nancy will be well represented.
Another thing that stood out for me was the older cast members, especially Andrew Sullender, who played Fagin, a potentially tricky role (Dickens 57). Fagin, the shows villain tricks Oliver into joining a life of theft, with an enticing promise of accommodation and a loving family. Sullender, did come through in a pretty satisfactory fashion. As Fagin, he presents himself while oozing the warmth and charisma enough to make those around him, like Oliver, drawn in, at the same time leaving spectators skeptic about his real intentions.
His rendition on the song; Youve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, does more than encourage Oliver to try his first pick pocketing game, it actually lightens the mood in the theatre. Sullender, did well to portray Fagin as a villain who the audience love to hate, but cannot quite get to hate. He especially evokes a great applause, or should I say, a great laugh from the part of the audience when he convincingly relied his discomfort with the plight of Oliver during the Rendition of the song: Reviewing the Situation, as he evaluates the options he has in life and methodically dismisses them all.
Oliver Twist character is played so ably by Gideon Johnson, a young man with a mischievous spark that endears him to the audience. He is in fact very important, as the character of Oliver is a developing one, and indeed a pawn for act II adult characters, and more importantly, the audience need to identify with this character from the first act, as he is the main character. As such, he delivers quite succinctly in act I in a solo rendition of the song Where Is Love. He nails the songs emotional aspect at the same time owning the stage with the confidence of a lead.
The production crew as well did not disappoint and seamlessly guided the ensemble of seemingly inexperienced cast effortlessly. Oliver is more of a childrens show, by that I mean that a majority of the cast is made of children and the youth. Part of my reservation for going in was the fact that earlier directions of the play I have watched and more so the 1968 movie, involved a lot of pretty dark moments. The show involves a lot of singing and dancing, with the workhouse orphans and pickpockets and other gang members coming in a frenzied dance ensemble.
My concern was how such a youthful director would be able to direct the action so that the essence of violence is captured as told by Dickens, at the same time making sure that the kids do stay safe. I was especially worried about the abusive scene between the Bill Sikes, the burglar and the soft hearted Nancy (Dickens 79). Turns out that I need not have been worried, Jessica, the director, had done an amazing job, guiding her youthful cast in portraying the sensitive parts of the play with great empathy and maturity. The whole cast delivered such a masterpiece performance portraying a very professional production. They understood their roles and resonated well with the shows emotional plot.
One of my concerns was with the technical side of production especially with regards to the sound system. The show was plagued with the usual sound problems than any musical show at Parkland. The microphone especially had issues picking up the childrens soft voices. It was one thing to miss the adult characters delivery of lines, due to the sound problems, but its totally disappointing to the audience to miss the childrens beautiful solo lines. Also, the lighting was particularly too bright, thus distracting, especially for the Victorian underworld; sometimes, some actors, like Fagin, appeared like a silhouettes or sometimes his hair would appear having fluorescent lights. I would have also preferred to have some kind of contrasting lights, for instance where Oliver Twist was moving in and out of the criminal underworld.
The other major issue I took with the show production was about the seemingly hurried climax, which was a little difficult to comprehend. Whether it was due to the persistent sound failures, one could not quite get the gist of what happened in some scenes with some characters coming off the stage looking very cold hearted, even when their actual roles do not appear so (Dickens). One had to wonder whether it was a deliberate move to rectify the sound issues or if things were to play out that fast.
All in all, the production of Oliver was very entertaining and indeed a fan filled evening owing to very impressive student talents. The combination of great musicals with the Dickens story made the show a worthwhile outing for fans as well as for those willing to support local talents.
Dickens, Charles. "Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boys progress (1838)." (2003)
BIBLIOGRAPHY Parkland Theatre. Parkland Theatre. 16 June 2016. http://theatre.parkland.edu. 21 July 2016.
The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company. The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company. 16 June 2016. http://cutc.org. 21 July 2016.
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