Lionel Bart’s musical version of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist was a huge hit back in the early 1960s. Full of memorable characters, cute kids, and a few singable songs, it takes a story about workhouse orphans, poverty, crime, and exploitation in Victorian London and turns it into an evening of theatrical fun. A populist writer, Dickens knew how to spin even the grimmest material into entertainment. But how does this transformation hold up in our more socially aware environment?
Michael Shamata’s handsome Playhouse production tries to have it both ways. With John Ferguson’s busy Victorian brick set darkly lit by Gerald King as if seen through one of those toxic London fogs, the show looks as though it might try to reflect some of the realities of Vancouver’s streets just beyond the Playhouse. But the ultimate impression is of fairy tale characters, dressed rather prettily by Nancy Bryant, presided over by the malignant but toothless villain Fagin, brilliantly played by Tom McBeath.
Little orphan Oliver (cute nine-year-old Brian Riback) gets kicked out of the parish workhouse when he dares ask for food: “Please, sir, I want more.” Nasty Mr. Bumble (Warren Kimmel) sells him for £5 to funeral directors Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Simon Bradbury and Karin Konoval). Escaping their coffins, Oliver lands among the street urchins who steal for the unsavoury, miserly Fagin. “You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” McBeath sings—or rather wheezes—and we’re immediately in his pocket, the sweet old rogue.
Paired up with the Artful Dodger (Morgan Roff), Oliver manages to get himself arrested, is saved by goodhearted Mr. Brownlow (Bradbury again), kidnapped by super-evil Bill Sikes (Martin Sims) and his girlfriend Nancy (Konoval again), and saved again in a series of uninteresting chase scenes that end happily ever after.
The music has a pretty thin sound coming from Lloyd Nicholson’s four-piece orchestra, and the show’s best-known song, “As Long as He Needs Me,” sung by Nancy about her relationship with Sikes, has little impact because we know hardly anything about the relationship and care even less. But Konoval does a great job with her comic number as the Widow Corney courted by Mr. Bumble, “I Shall Scream.” Tracy Neff as the streetwalker Bet also does nice work on another lesser-known tune, “Oom-Pah-Pah.”
One thing people love about this show is the chorus of 22 boys who, along with Oliver, make up the orphans and Fagin’s gang. They’re cute kids, all right, and one of them even does some Victorian breakdancing. They ensure that this Oliver! is Dickens lite.