OLIVER! Theatre Review

by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
The Orange Park Community Theatre (OPCT), now in its 40th season, opened their first show of 2010 with the acclaimed Broadway musical version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (with music, lyrics and script by Lionel Bart). The production will be on stage at 2900 Moody Avenue in Orange Park through February 20th. Call 276-2599 or you can now reserve online at www.OPCT.org.
Set in London in 1850, the tale brings to life Oliver, a workhouse orphan since birth, and the characters he meets along his upward journey. You will visit the streets of London while following Oliver from the workhouse, to an undertaker’s parlour, Fagin’s den of thieves, a pub, and the opulent residence of a wealthy London gentleman. You will get to know the heartless Mr. Bumble (Tim DeBorde), unforgettable figures such as the Artful Dodger (Russell Thrift), and Fagin (C. Michael Porter), the ill-fated Nancy (Erin Barnes) and the villainous Bill Sykes (T. J. Howard). While the original Oliver Twist was an expose’ of an oppressive underworld, with its exploitation of child labor, the musical is much lighter and has many comic moments with some of the best songs in musical theatre history, such as ‘Food, Glorious Food’, ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘Oliver’, ‘Where is Love?’, and ‘It’s a Fine Life’, to name a few.
Directors Connie Senkowski and Robert Houston have cast 39 performers ranging from theatre veterans, in the leading and major supporting roles, to a number of new actors making their Orange Park debuts. The North Florida cast members have gathered from Keystone Heights, to Ponte Vedra, to Jacksonville.
Playing the lead role of Oliver is Jesse James, a new resident of Florida whose family moved here from Maine. The young Mr. James, a seasoned performer with heart-melting brown eyes, is perfect for the role of the feisty but vulnerable and innocent Oliver. You will enjoy his performance.
Russell Thrift is a Douglas Anderson sophomore who already has two community theatre shows under his belt in The Secret Garden at Theatre Jacksonville and Aussie Song at ABET. Thrift is smooth and dapper as the head of Fagin’s gang.
I recall seeing Michael Porter as Fagin fourteen years ago at Case Theatre in Mandarin, a show he also directed. I thought he was a bit young for the role but now he is the perfect age. He is a lovable rogue and delightfully devilish as he sings in fine voice his two main songs, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ and ‘Pick a Pocket or Two.’ Porter has been away from theatre for ten years and it is good to have him back.
One of the highlights of this show is the superb performance of Erin Barnes as Nancy, who was a former pickpocket student of Fagin and is in an abusive relationship with the evil, menacing Bill Sykes, brilliantly portrayed by T. J. Howard. Nancy finds herself in conflict, devoted to Sykes but willing to risk all to help Oliver escape from Fagin and a life of thievery. Ms Barnes has a marvelous voice and her poignant rendition of ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ will send shivers down your spine.
Lindsay Curry as the Widow Corney joins Mr. Bumble (Tim Deborde) in the hilarious number ‘I Shall Scream.’ Ms. Curry can sure belt out a song and I would love to see her do the musical Hair Spray.
Another of the funnier scenes is between Mr. Sowerberry (Steve Conrad) and Mrs. Sowerberry (Shelly Hayes) as they give a new “twist” to funerals, singing ‘Its Your Funeral.’
Other specific character roles included Noah (Junior Russell), Bet (Caitlin Charrier), Dr. Grimwig (Steve Cohn), Mr. Brownlow (Evan Gould), Mrs. Bedwin (Barbara C. Wells), Charlie Bates (Liam Wiransky), Old Sally (Kathleen Andrzejewski), Old Annie (Sally DeBorde) Chairman (Roger Padgett), and Bookseller (Henry Zimmer).
Appearing as dancers as well as in the chorus were Langdon Zimmer, Victoria Messick, Danielle Wiransky, Ilana Gould, Hannah Morgan, and Tiana Whitehead. The chorus also included Kathleen Ward, Judy Gould, Mac McGlothin, Shiloh Burford and Toni Stephens.
Of course Oliver has lots of boys in the workhouse as Fagin’s pickpocket gang, and in the OPTC production you will see eight boys, except five of them are young ladies skillfully dressed as boys, so convincingly that my companion, who had not read the program before the show, had no idea they were girls. All the young actors stayed in character throughout their scenes, and I saw many musical theatre stars of the future on that stage.
The choreography on the small stage is always challenging and the dual choreographers, Allison Rochefort and Kaitlin Jaquette, did an excellent job of creating lively dances for the show.
The costumes by Regina Manning, Sally DeBorde, and Lindsay Curry were creative, appropriate to the era, and carefully constructed to convey the social status of the characters. For example, while Mr. Bumble, overseer of the workhouse, wears clothes ornamented with gold braid, the workhouse orphans are uniformly dressed in drab unhemmed trousers and shirts, and are shoeless. Fagin’s boys are clearly better off – at least materially – with bright shirts and vests, neat trousers, hats and substantial footwear. Women at the market are dressed in bonnets with brims and long skirts, capturing the essence of feminine fashion in the Victorian era.
The set designed by Connie Senkowski, joined by scenic artist Erin Gawerra and set decorator Barbara Wells, with lighting designed by David Wells, was also quite creative. The background morphed from the brick walls of the workhouse to the interior of the public house to a London cityscape. Minimalistic furnishings made it possible for the crew to execute the many scene changes quickly and efficiently.
Musical Director Brenda Cohn, has done this job for so many OPTC shows, she no longer lists them all in her program biography. Her professional touch is present in all her shows. The orchestra hidden away back stage, performed excellently, always on cue, never overpowering the singers on stage. The musicians included Roger Feingold, John Cochran, Heather Baerga, Alexandra Giovanni, and Donald Morgan.
Handling all that back stage traffic (and with 39 people there was a lot of it), was Stage Manager Jennifer Rochefort.
The sets and costumes you will see and the musicians you will hear and the reasonably priced tickets for a musical would not have been possible were it not for the generosity of the The Tom Nehl Fund of the Community Foundation. Thanks again.
Don’t miss Oliver. It is a dramatic show with marvelous music and an enthusiastic and energetic cast. Though the subject matter may seem dark, this musical version is good family entertainment and quite humorous in tone.