Gruel Intentions

Young and old, the actors work hard to lift the story to life.
Joan Marcus

Nobody tells a tale like Charles Dickens. His volumes -- full of good, decent boys suffering at the hands of wicked villains, soul-sucking poverty, heartbreaking sickness and the deliciously dark London streets -- tell some of the most entertaining stories ever put down on paper, which is why it's no surprise that several have found their way to the stage. Think Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol and, of course, Oliver! The last of the three is the thinnest interpretation of the great writer's work. But why quibble over depth when Lionel Bart's musical is chock-full of unforgettable, show-stopping tunes like "Food, Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself" and "As Long as He Needs Me"? It doesn't even matter that during the opening numbers, the cast's frenetic energy garbles the production. The show, brought to us by Theatre Under the Stars, is still a roaring good time.

Oliver! opens on one of those dismal Victorian orphanages, the sort of place where every child is dressed in shades of gray and no one ever gets enough to eat. The children's sorry state is underscored by all the great trays of steaming "glorious food" that drift by on their way to the fat grown-ups' table. One pathetic bowl of gruel is all the kids get. When the angelic Oliver (played by understudy Tucker Worley at the matinee I saw) has the audacity to ask for more of the nasty stuff, he gets sold on the street to a foppish undertaker and his horrible, chalk-faced wife.

This introduction to our little hero's dreadful situation is full of song and dance. The undertakers sing about funerals, while the adults sing about the awful things they'll do to Oliver: "feed him on cockroaches served in a canister!" At one point, all the children sing about food as they march up and down four different sets of stairs, then over tables and benches. Young and old, these actors work hard to lift this story to life. But under Graham Gill's overwrought direction, none of the opening songs ever manages to catch fire. Instead, the actors just seem to be stomping themselves into a weird frenzy as they bounce about the stage trying to look energetic.



Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887

Through June 20. $25-$68.

It's not until Oliver runs away from his terrible circumstances that the story begins to exude some of the charm that Dickens is so famous for. In an amusing chase scene, we watch him running and running and running. He finally makes his way to those infamous London streets. Exhausted, hungry and friendless, he meets up with a feisty bunch of characters who finally breathe some oxygen into the show.

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The Artful Dodger (Andrew Blau) is a nimble young thief who takes Oliver under his wing and introduces the angel to a whole fraternity of hooligans. In one of the most rousing numbers of the night, Dodger and his gang invite Oliver to "Consider Yourself" one of the family. Young Blau is a firecracker with boyish charm who explodes across the stage. In his wrinkled top hat and ratty tuxedo coat, he leads the boys in a blur of song and dance.

Dodger then escorts Oliver down into the boys' rathole of a home, a dirty underground hideout run by a man named Fagin (Mark McCracken). The clowning old robber with a heart of gold gives the boys food and a place to sleep in exchange for the loot they filch picking pockets. McCracken's Fagin is a funny old coot who spends his private time playing with his loot and talking to his stolen jewels. And he stops the show in the second act with "Reviewing the Situation," when the law gets hip to him and he has to get out of town.

If Fagin is the only father these boys know, then the crimson-gowned Nancy (Renata Reneé Wilson) is the closest thing to their mother. Her good heart shines through her tawdry surroundings. We eventually learn that she grew up under Fagin's tutelage and knows the streets well. But that doesn't stop her from falling in love with the meanest man in town, Bill Sikes (Shane R. Tanner), whom she sings about in the gutsy ballad "As Long as He Needs Me." Despite the fact that Nancy croons over a man who beats her, Wilson's hauntingly rich version of the song has a lonely sound that can give you heartbreaking chills. It's the best number of this production, in large part because of Wilson's luxurious voice.

In the end, the musical does fairly well by Dickens. After Oliver runs away, the show goes from frenetic to fantastic.

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