The sumptuously designed and well-directed production of Oliver! at West Valley's Hale Centre Theatre dwells on the darkness of crime but is punctuated by the light of hope.
Oliver! (music, lyrics, and book by Lionel Bart) is based on the classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. It follows an orphan boy named Oliver on his journey from a workhouse, where he dares to ask for more food, to the clutches of a pickpocket gang and beyond.
Period pieces produced by Hale Centre Theatre are always a treat, and Oliver! is no exception. The detailed set by Kacey Udy creates a stunning, textured canvas for the historically accurate costumes and props by Peggy Willis and Michelle Jensen, respectively. Together they create a gritty picture of life in the seedy districts of 19th century London.
The production design is an important element of director David Tinney's laudable decision to focus on some of the darker elements of the source material. This also led to the inclusion of some of the production's most memorable moments, including the staging of Bill Syke's "My Name" and Fagin's final scene. In addition, the characters are played less humorously than is traditional, allowing for raw emotional scenes to play out more realistically than they otherwise do.
Unfortunately, remaining true to the time period in which the story is set conflicts with the anachronistic music of the period in which the musical was written. The classic 1960s songs are a joy to hear, but their bright, peppy quality is jarring in this particular production, and especially because they do not flow well with the dialogue musically or thematically. It's too bad that re-orchestrating the music wasn't an option, as it would have been for a major revival, since that may have solved much of the problem. As it is, it sometimes feels as if the actors are fighting against the music in an attempt to add naturalism to the scenes.
The performers are certainly to be commended for their work here. Jeffrey Whitlock as Fagin (double cast with Barrett Ogden) is a revelation in his portrayal of the imbalanced crime ring leader. Emily Bell as Nancy (double cast with Jacquelyne Jones) successfully embodies the misery and humanity of the character. Connor McMaster as The Artful Dodger (double cast with Geoff Beckstrand) has great spunk, and Zachary Brown in the title role (double cast with Wally Inkley) is forlorn but lovable.
If it's been a while since you've seen Oliver!, this is the perfect opportunity to revisit the show from a new perspective.
Hale Centre Theatre's production of Oliver! plays through December 1, 2012. For tickets, call the box office at 801-984-9000 or visit www.halecentretheatre.org.
Photo Credit: L-R Zachary Brown as Oliver and Jeffrey Whitlock as Fagin