The main difficulty with a musical about dark subjects is the actors have to be true triple threats, able to sing, dance and most importantly, act their socks off so the audience is carried through the performance emotionally.
Hale Centre Theatre's production of "Oliver!" features the company's expected high-quality production values, as well as standout performances by principals such as Barrett Ogden as Fagin, Paul Cartwright as Bill Sykes, Jacquelyne Jones as Nancy and Geoff Beckstrand as Jack Dawkins, aka the Artful Dodger (all in the Monday, Wednesday, Friday cast). All of these actors exhibited powerhouse singing voices, solid acting skills and evident technical abilities that allowed them to execute the production's intricate movement and choreography.
When Ogden's mic went out for most of the first act, a reminder of the reality of live theater, it served to underscore the actor's poise, as he smoothly pumped up his volume and let his singing voice carry him through. Also deserving of praise was the performance of Kevin Cottam, who plays Sowerberry, the undertaker, and Brownlow, a gentleman who takes Oliver in and is later revealed to be his grandfather. Along with Cartwright, he pulls off the most solid British accent.
What all these actors had in common was that they all found, with the help of director and choreographer David Tinney, the emotional arc to their characters. Tinney's director's notes say the story is "dark, graphic and deliberate, while also "gilded with hope, humanity, sacrifice, triumph and redemption." This is absolutely true of the book; but this production didn't plumb every one of those depths to their fullest extent.
And because this is Hale Centre Theatre, as always the show's production values are high quality, beginning with the set by resident designer Kacey Udy (with lighting design by Benjamin Saunders), which was highlighted by massive curtains inscribed with the orphan Oliver's famous line, "Please sir, I want some more," the words that set the musical's plot in motion.
That mood is underscored by an array of wood pieces and ropes surrounding the doors to the theater, with gaslights and grates lit from underneath on the stage. Also impressive were huge cogs that dropped down on either side to introduce the workhouse setting, the use of a moving boat and the effective feature of real fire.
Costume design, by Peggy Willis, and hair and makeup design, by Trisha Isom, stuck very closely to the 1968 film, which was a wise choice, down to the iconic combination of Nancy's strawberry blonde hair and red dress.
A bit of background: "Oliver!,"(with script, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart) was adapted from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, premiered in London's West End in 1960, and enjoyed a successful Broadway opening in 1963. The 1968 film and various tours and revivals followed close behind.
The concept of the musical is an oxymoron as it employs singing and dancing, to unfold its dark subject matter, which includes gritty song lyrics such as "In the end we'll either burn you up or nail you down," a fitting summary of the entire story.
The musical opens in a workhouse, as half-starved orphan boys sing about food, while being fed gruel. Oliver (played alternatively by Wally Inkley and Zachary Brown), who gathers up the courage to ask for more, is sold to an undertaker, Sowerberry. After escaping that fate, he meets the pickpocket Jack Dawkins, who invites Oliver to live in Fagin's lair. Oliver is then introduced to the entire gang, including Nancy, the live-in girlfriend of Bill Sykes, a burglar whose abuse she endures because she loves him.
When Oliver is sent out with the other boys on his first pickpocketing job, Dawkins robs Brownlow, a wealthy elderly gentleman, and Oliver is arrested for the crime. Fagin and Sykes decide to kidnap Oliver to protect themselves. Nancy at first refuses to help, but Sykes physically abuses her and forces her into obedience. Brownlow, who has taken in Oliver, sends him out to return some books as an exhibition of trust. Nancy and Sykes grab him and bring him back to Fagin's den, and Nancy visits Brownlow and promises to deliver Oliver to him safely that night on London Bridge. I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say it's comparatively happy.
As you might expect, the plot of Dickens' original novel is considerably simplified for the musical adaptation, with Fagin represented as a comic character rather than as a villain.
What's missing from this production was a clearer, deliberate emotional arc by some of the actors, who successfully executed the demands of the choreography and the singing, but seemed less sure about conveying their characters' intentions. And so the audience was, in turn, unsure about what they were supposed to feel. As the run goes on, I hope some of the younger actors can relax into their roles, while taking cues from the more experienced cast members.
At one of the play's darkest moments, I overheard a theatergoer ask his companion: "Are we supposed to cheer?" The answer to him, I think, was that if he came back later in the run, the cast's performances might answer that question.
'Please, sir, I want some more'
Hale Centre Theatre's "Oliver!" hits the mark in design and singing, but acting is less solid.
When • Reviewed Monday, Oct. 15; continues through Dec. 1; Monday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 12:30 and 4 p.m. No performances on Wednesday, Oct. 17, and Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 21 and 22.
Where • Hale Centre Theatre, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City
Tickets • $15-$26 from 801-984-9000 or hct.org