Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
It’s a great story, and why wouldn’t it be? Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist has been read and enjoyed for over a hundred years, so when the whole story was set to music over fifty years ago, it’s no surprise that it’s still a hit today.
Fenton Village Players opened their version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Thursday evening. A large cast, including many talented newcomers, tells this story of an orphaned boy raised in a 1800s English workhouse. It is a musically rich show with lots of chorus numbers and some fine solos.
Nearly ten youngsters make up the group of orphans and thieves that rule this tale of Victorian England’s treatment of the poor and especially the young. Many will remember the character of Fagin, played here by Daniel Ragan. He’s the raffish fellow who takes in homeless kids then turns them into pickpockets and thieves in exchange for a place to belong, food, and unfortunately, fear. Ragan is scary from the beginning but oddly benevolent as well.
Oliver is played by Jackson McDowell, who at 11 debuts with FVP although he brings experience in local theatre musicals elsewhere to this stage. His voice is sweet and his look enchanting especially as he sings the haunting “Where Is Love?”
The real villain of the piece is the brutal Bill Sikes. Brandon Pretty is menacing, dressed in mostly black, as he paces about with a sneer for everyone. His voice however isn’t snarly enough to match his looks.
Brooke Caldwell brings a trio of empathy, energy and enthusiasm to the role of Bill’s girlfriend, Nancy. She is outstanding vocally and manages to portray this complicated character to the hilt. Her performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” is stunning.
Two other soloists need mention. Shiloh Lichowid who sings the plaintive “Boy For Sale”, a perfect showcase for his strong voice, plays Mr. Bumble, the grouchy Workhouse constable. Playing the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s right hand kid and the fellow who finds Oliver on the street, Tony Nelson is spunky and fun as he welcomes Oliver with “Consider Yourself”.
The youngsters are adorable and fun to watch as they move from workhouse kids to street thieves to upper class shoppers and back. Their choruses are rousing and loud as they should be especially in the opener “Food, Glorious Food” and the finale “I’d Do Anything”.
It cannot be easy to wrangle a troupe of this size with many of them children. Director Steve Krupa has done a decent job. The FVP stage isn’t deep but it is wide, so he has taken advantage of that to set scenes and dances handily. Music director Rafeal McDaniel had his work cut out as well. Getting kids to sing and dance with the gusto these children do is no small accomplishment.
There are however a few problems. The music here is prerecorded which inhibits singers and even speakers. Too many times Thursday, there were long waits for the music to finish so the action could continue. Enthusiasm would bubble up now and then but the sound track held everyone in check as they tried to stay inside the tempo.
I am not a fan of canned accompaniment in a full-scale musical. Every show I’ve seen with this music tech has had a problem. Singers should lead and music should accompany them, but when the music is recorded those roles are reversed.
Still, Oliver! is a good show and well worth seeing. The kids are great and the story is one that never gets old. It continues at the Fenton Village Playhouse, 14197 Torrey Road, Fenton MI through July 29. For more information on times and tickets contact the box office at 810-750-7700 or online at www.FentonTheatre.org