Monday, June 18, 2012

theatre review OLIVER! Irish Repertory Theatre Benefit, June 11

Most benefit concert performances aren't fortunate enough to have fully fleshed out production values, completely rehearsed casts and huge ensembles.  Fortunately, even with some of those shortcomings, the Irish Repertory Theatre's benefit concert of Oliver! this past Monday managed to deliver some really nice performances and pull off a fairly good production of this well known and well loved musical.

Based on the classic novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, the musical Oliver! with Music, Lyrics and Book by Lionel Bart, had a hugely successful run in London and a fairly decent one on Broadway in the early 60's.  In 1968 the film version of the musical won six Oscars including one for Best Picture.

The plot of the musical and novel follows young orphan Oliver Twist from his miserable workhouse life to being pulled unwillingly by a young teen "The Artful Dodger" into a life of crime, living and working with a group of juvenile delinquent pick pockets.  That group is led by an older thief, Fagin, but Oliver eventually escapes and fortunately ends up reunited with his dead mother's family.  

While the original musical was an abbreviated version of the Dickens' novel, the benefit concert was even more abbreviated, running just under two hours.  Fortunately the concert included the majority of the Tony winning score and the wonderful performances of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Melissa Errico.  Stokes was Fagin, the leader of the gang and Errico was Nancy, the older female member of the gang who serves as a surrogate mother figure for Oliver.

The score of Oliver! has several well known songs and hearing Errico's glorious soprano wrapped around the music and lyrics of "As Long As He Needs Me," "I'd Do Anything," and "It's A Fine Life" and the rich baritone of Stokes singing Fagin's songs more than made up for some of the shortcomings of the evening.  Those shortcomings included numerous audio issues due to microphones not working correctly, strange costume choices and the use of spare narration to replace the huge chunks of book that were cut.  Ciaran O'Reilly, the Producing Director of Irish Rep provided the narration, and while I understand that cuts in the book were needed, but with no set to speak of, the narration should have been a little more descriptive.  I know there were some people in the audience who weren't familiar with the show or story and I'm sure they were somewhat lost during parts of the performance.

The use of actual period costumes for the main adult cast was effective but all of the children in the cast wore modern street clothes, most in logo t-shirts that was jarring against the period costumes.  The use of a boy choir was effective, and they were at least dressed in more standard consistent clothing, but they weren't very well directed as to what to do between the songs or even while they were singing their parts, some swaying as they sang, others remaining motionless.

Still, Errico, Stokes and the rest of the cast more than made up for those fall backs.  As Oliver, Zachary Maitlin was effective and able to hit most of the notes required.  Lance Chantiles-Wertz as Dodger was also charming and had a nice voice.  It should be noted that the two boys were the only members of the cast not carrying their scripts around to refer to, which is not usually the case at a benefit concert.  It's nice to see the two of them being so professional.  The cast also included James Barbour as Nancy's evil boyfriend Bill,  John Treacy Egan as Bumble, Nancy Anderson as Nancy's friend Bet, Kathy Fitzgerald as the Widow Corey, Malcolm Gets and Ann Harada as the Sowerberry's and Jim Broucho as Mr. Brownlowe.  The Keystone State Boychoir added a lovely youthfulness and rich sound to the boy ensemble numbers.

Barbour was extremely effective at getting the fear and danger of Bill Sykes across and his deep baritone voice was especially nice on his one solo song.  Treacy Egan's rich voice was simply lovely, especially during "Boy For Sale."  Anderson, Gets, Harada and Kitzgerald provided some nice comic bits and Broucho added a lovely emotional touch of caring and tenderness.  Also, Donna Kane provided an extremely lovely solo during the "Who Will Buy?" sequence.

As I said above, even with the shortcomings of this concert, the score of Oliver! has so many well known and well loved songs that hearing an A list Broadway cast sing the score more then made up for any of the drawbacks of the night.

Behind the scenes at rehearsals for the benefit:

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