Lionel Bart's one-and-only hit musical (1960) started the Broadway British invasion when Oliver! opened in New York two years after its phenomenal London premiere. Producers mined the English stage for decades afterward, bringing us Tommy Steele, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Anthony Newley, hoping for the next great blockbuster.
This surprisingly tuneful adaptation of Dickens' classic novel of orphan Oliver Twist and his lowlife adventures among a group of slum pickpockets never stops singing. The grease and grim of Saffron Hill, the lair of criminal boss Fagin, vibrantly comes alive through Bart's music hall setting where everybody has a song or two to let us know what they're thinking. It moves fast. From the show's first number, the exuberant curtain raiser “Food Glorious Food,” belted out by the wee hungry orphans as they bang metal dishes in syncopated rhythm, we're in fine capable hands. Dickens is well served.
Bart was a pop composer before Oliver! and his entertainment pedigree is deft and sure as in prostitute Nancy's bluesy anthem to her sadistic lover Bill Sykes, “As Long As He Needs Me;” the rousing Victoriana of pub-songs “Oom-Pah-Pah” and “It's a Fine Life;” Fagin's snarky “Reviewing the Situation,” with its sneaky Sephardic harmonies; the pep and vigor of the Artful Dodger's welcome to innocent Oliver to the life of crime, “Consider Yourself;” the low comedy riff from workhouse toady Mr. Bumble and his squeeze Widow Corney, “I Shall Scream;” and the Dodger's winking “I'd Do Anything,” sung to Nancy like a proper gent.
The songs come at you in waves, each specific yet universal. Bart would never again work such magic. Although he won the 1963 Tony Award for his score and lyrics, his subsequent shows were epic flops, and when he sold his rights to Oliver! to bankroll one of them, forever severing all future profits, he sadly lost everything. Drugged out and homeless, he went downhill fast.
This Theatre Under the Stars production, directed with flash by Bruce Lumpkin, with its atmospheric movable wooden bridge of a set by Dennis Hassan and colorful rag costumes by Colleen Grady, is fleshed out by a prime cast. Dickens supplies iconic characters, as usual: Fagin, Nancy, Bill, undertaker Sowerberry, the Artful Dodger, and our eponymous hero, little Oliver. The panoply of squalid London is tunefully etched by Broadway vets and some of Houston's own musical vets.
James Leo Ryan (Annie on Broadway, national tours of Peter Pan and Les Miserables) overlays Fagin with oily charm. If he's a bit sweeter than Dickens' grasping pseudo-molester, he's a warmer comic light in the sooty Victorian gloom. He prances through “You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” like an old pro from vaudeville. Our own Kathryn Porterfield (TUTS' Bonnie and Clyde) is a star-turning Nancy, giving her all to her signature power ballad. Nathaniel Hackman (Broadway's Les Mis and Beauty and the Beast) makes a terrifying Sykes, spitting out his “My Name” with unbanked fury and desperation. You don't want to cross him in a dark alley, that's for sure.
Undertaker Sowerberry is picture-perfect Dylan Godwin (a Houston Press Houston Theater Award winner). Lean as a coffin nail, he sparkles through his sardonic “That's Your Funeral,” telling apprentice/slave Oliver what his duties as professional child mourner will be. Caleb Donahoe, as spirited Dodger, turns this resourceful petty criminal into a true song-and-dance man, effortlessly inveigling himself into the audience's good graces. A current 6th grader at the Awty International School, young Christopher Wolff, with his crystalline boy soprano, is most sympathetic as put-upon Oliver. Alone among the coffins, his plangent “Where Is Love?” cuts to the heart. Obviously, his studies at the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre are paying off handsomely.
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I'd be remiss if I didn't congratulate the other little ones in the ensemble, all students at TUTS' HSMT. These little troopers strut about the stage like tiny Peters and Orbachs. They are a wonder to watch, and I wouldn't be surprised if, years from now, many of them will be opening on Broadway. Until then, there's plenty of work in Annie, Matilda, and Spring Awakening to look forward to.
The only downside to this lively production is the atrocious sound design. It's work enough for the cast to put across the heavy Cockney accents, but most of Bart's lyrics are rendered unintelligible. The orchestra is too loud, while the voices are terribly muffled. Are the mics the wrong type? Is the sound board full of bugs? Is the operator deaf? This isn't the first time a TUTS show at the Hobby sounds like it's being broadcast from the moons of Saturn. This, really, has got to be fixed. It does no one any favors – Dickens, Bart, the wonderful cast, or, most importantly, the audience!
But plenty of Oliver!'s wonders peak through the murky sound. There's no tamping down this show's abundant bounce. Please, sir, I want some more.
Oliver! continues through April 17 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-2600 or visit tuts.org. $37.75-$104.50.