Review: Oliver!

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Vancouver has a new holiday treat this year with Oliver! on stage now at the Vancouver Playhouse until December 15th.

Based on the Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, most will probably know the show from the 1968 film but there is little to compare here as this is a darker version of the mid-19th century full of poverty and despair (but ultimately hope) than the movie version.

As a young orphan, Oliver Twist has spent his life in a workhouse after his mother died in childbirth and never knowing his father.  Conditions are hard for Oliver and the other young boys in the workhouse and when Oliver asks for a second a helping of gruel in the show’s opening number “Food, Glorious Food” he is whisked off to be sold to an undertaker.  Lasting only one night at the undertakers, Oliver runs away to London, joining up with Fagin and his gang of young pickpockets.  Upon being arrested after his first foray into thievery, young Oliver begins his final journey to discover who he really is and with hope for the future.

John Ferguson’s set design indeed elicits the darkness of mid-19th century London and coupled with Gerald King’s lighting design the play transitions nicely from the dirty environs of lower-class London to the more up-scale Bloomsbury.  The addition of a bridge above the stage provides numerous opportunities for some inventive staging including a wonderful “Be Back Soon” in the first act.

W.C. Fields once said that you should “never work with children or animals”.  Fortunately for Director Michael Shamata this does not appear to be a problem.  As the workhouse boys and Fagin’s gang, Oliver! features 22 budding young musical theatre stars.  The boys, from across the Lower Mainland and Victoria, were selected from nearly 200 who auditioned and, like their adult co-stars, are performing eight shows a week.  And in a clever nod to the workhouse, Shamata makes the most of the boys who end up doing double-duty as both actors and stage hands bringing in and removing various stage props and scenery.

Sound did seem to be a problem during the performance we attended and the decision to not use microphones on the players doesn’t help, especially with a great deal of the action happening toward the rear of the stage.  Occasionally the microphones mounted on the apron would pick-up on various characters creating a distraction as voices were thrown to the speakers mounted high on either side of the stage.  The hilarious scene of Oliver being captured and placed inside an empty coffin highlighted the sound problems as we were left wondering if Oliver’s lines were delivered by a recording or were live through a microphone inside the coffin itself.

Highlights of the show include a wonderful rendition of “Boy For Sale” by Warren Kimmel as Mr. Bumble (arguably one of the most haunting and beautiful songs of Lionel Bart’s music) and Kayla Dunbar as the Rose Seller during the “Who Will Buy?” number in the second act.

In his professional theatre debut, nine year old Brian Riback captures the frightened and innocent Oliver Twist with the confidence of a seasoned professional.  No doubt we will see more of Mr. Riback on Vancouver’s theatre scene in the years to come.

In a traditionally busy time on the arts scene in Vancouver Oliver! is a holiday treat for the whole family (although some of the violence may be disturbing to some younger children).

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