OLIVER! THE MUSICAL
— Oliver! production photo
For its 69th season, the venerable Theatre Under the Stars presents two flashback musicals. Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, takes us back to 1840s England. Hairspray, adapted by Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan from John Waters’ movie, with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, drops us into Baltimore, circa 1960, the year Oliver! premiered in London. Oliver! is showing its age but Hairspray couldn’t feel more contemporary.
Little orphan Oliver (played by Cliff Ronning’s 11-year-old daughter Carly, who shoots and scores in her stage debut) escapes from the workhouse, then from the undertakers to whom he’s been sold by nasty Mr. Bumble (Damon Calderwood), only to be brought by the slick Artful Dodger (Nathan Piasecki) into a den of orphan thieves and pickpockets run by the creepy Fagin (Stephen Aberle), who is himself under the thumb of psychopathic Bill Sykes (Calderwood again).
In Shel Piercy’s production, except for the first five minutes, we don’t feel any of the horror of these kids’ lives, nor any real danger until Sykes shows up. Although he overacts as Bumble, Calderwood is genuinely scary as the murderous Sykes. But Bart takes the sting out of all but a couple of moments in his script. The chorus numbers with the kids—“Food Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “Pick a Pocket or Two”—are just rollicking fun. And when Oliver gets his happy ending because of his pedigree, we’re not given any sense of how the rest of the kids’ lives are likely to unfold.
Keri Minty and Shelley Stewart Hunt offer up some energetic choreography in the opening number and give us a clever zombie dance in “That’s Your Funeral,” but the show has relatively few of the dynamic dance numbers that have been one of the signatures of TUTS for years.
The best song in the show, “As Long As He Needs Me,” is sung by Bill’s girl Nancy. Elizabeth Marie West has a lovely voice. But the song’s arrangement doesn’t give her the best opportunity to milk it, and besides, we never get any indication that Bill actually does need Nancy. The song only really makes sense if she is played as a woman clearly rationalizing her position in an abusive relationship, or if Bill shows her just a little affection or at least attention. Calderwood sings with a rich baritone. And the flower seller (Erin Palm) sings verses of the beautiful tune, “Who Will Buy,” throughout the show. It gets a gorgeous madrigal treatment by multiple characters in the second act.
Aberle’s acting and singing are very good as both Fagin and gentlemanly Mr. Brownlow, who redeems Oliver at the end. But a number of things remain ambiguous and troubling to me that might have been—but are not—clarified either in the performance or the staging. Fagin’s special attraction to Oliver has more than a hint of the pedophile, and we’re reminded of Dickens’ anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin the money-loving Jew in a single musical phrase played on a clarinet late in the show.
There are rich opportunities here, and in the classist ending, for bringing Oliver! into the 21st century. Though none of these opportunities are taken, the possibilities, along with the energetic cast and pleasant musical numbers, kept me engaged to the end.
— Hairspray production photo
Hairspray, a terrific musical that’s fully conscious of its politics, is an absolute joy from beginning to end. Director Sarah Rodgers has put together a highly professional production with no weaknesses and plenty of “WOW!!” moments.
The rocking opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” sets the bar very high, as does Erin E. Walker. From the moment she opens her mouth as overweight, underestimated teen Tracy Turnblad, you can feel her star power. The entire company rises to the challenge and the show never flags.
Racially segregated Baltimore is on the cusp of the civil rights movement and the battle will be joined on Corky Collins’ TV show, a local version of American Bandstand, where white teens dance to the latest tunes except for once a month, “Negro Day,” when black kids are allowed on stage. Tracy doesn’t set out to be a crusader—she just wants desperately to be on the show and share the stage with heartthrob Link Larkin (Dustin Freeland). But she’s changed by the black kids she meets in detention, notably Seaweed (David Lindo-Reid) and his sister Inez (Marisa Gold), who share Tracy’s outsider status and teach her some boss dance moves.
The show is filled with vivid characters, including Tracy’s triple-plus-size mom Edna (Andy Toth, reprising his role from the Arts Club production of 2011) and joke shop owner dad Wilbur (Ryan Purdy), Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton (Hannah Williams) and her uptight, racist mother Prudy (Georgia Beaty), narcissistic alpha-teen Amber (Elyse Maloway) and her manipulative mother, the former Miss Baltimore Crabs and producer of the Corny Collins Show, Velma Von Tussle (Lori Ashton Zondag). There’s also Seaweed and Inez’s mother Motormouth Maybelle (soulful Cecilly Day), a trio of colourful background singers (Jennifer Suratos, Lindsey Ali Watson and Michelle Bardach), Corny Collins himself (Chris D. King, doing triple duty as musical director and conductor), and Graeme Thompson, very funny as a trio of eccentric characters.
The script and songs are filled with glorious lines (Seaweed: “Every day is Negro Day in our house”; Corny says, “Kids love the rhythm & blues” and Velma responds, “They’re kids. We have to steer them in the white direction”; three girls sing to their mothers, “If I get a hickey don’t have a cow/’Cause Mama I’m a big girl now”; Link sings, “Tracy, I’m in love with you/No matter what you weigh”). Racism and size-ism are treated with equal comic cleverness and disdain. There’s wonderful satire (and super-smart choreography by Julie Tomaino) around the hairspray that sponsors the Corny Collins Show. And Chris Sinosich’s costumes and wigs are spectacular.
TUTS is all about the joys of musical theatre, and every number in this show is superb. Shaiman and Wittman haven’t written a single lame song. Every production number seems to trump the next: “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” “It Takes Two,” “Welcome to the 60’s,” “Big, Blonde & Beautiful,” “The Big Doll House,” “You’re Timeless to Me,” and the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” are my faves. Kudos to the eight-piece orchestra and every singer and dancer in the chorus along with the terrific performances of all the principals. Rodgers’ fresh and imaginative staging is helped immensely by Brian Ball’s cleverly mobile set, Gerald King’s lighting and Robin Boxwell’s unusually clear (for TUTS) sound.
I loved this production, one of the very best in TUTS’ recent history, and another indication of what a great musical theatre town Vancouver has become.