When the rain is pouring and the wind is howling, it’s a lo-o-ong drive home down I-95 from beautiful downtown Baltimore to Reston, Virginia. But after a decent Sunday evening meal and a sprightly production of the vintage musical Oliver!—both at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore—battling the elements didn’t seem that serious an issue after all. Singing a few of the show’s toe-tapping hit tunes (badly) on the way back home certainly helped ease the drive along.
With its running time whittled down via a few judicious cuts here and there, Toby’s version of Oliver!—directed by Shawn Kettering—is an economy-style production that cleverly manages to retain much of the original’s infectious charm, due largely to the boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm of its energetic cast.
Oliver! is based, of course, on Charles Dickens’ classic novel “Oliver” which follows the misadventures of a young, 19th century orphan as he bravely tries to extricate himself from London’s teeming underworld. His trials and tribulations lead to a surprise happy ending—but not without tragic encounters along the way.
Like many of Dickens’ novels, “Oliver” was based, at least in part, on the author’s youthful experiences when his own family found itself in dire economic circumstances. A good bit of the author’s sadness and melancholy dating from this period was preserved in Lionel Bart’s musical version of the novel despite the show’s witty, happy songs.
Oliver! made its 1960 debut in London’s West End and it proved to be an instant hit. It’s been regularly revived around the world since then, and it’s currently playing in London yet again.
Small wonder the show is still so popular. Consider its cavalcade of memorable tunes: “Food, Glorious Food,” “Where Is Love,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” and, of course, “As Long As He Needs Me.” Nearly anyone will recognize these, and the rest are nearly as good. Each one wraps deviously clever lyrics with eminently sing-able songs. They pulse with emotion and with a melodramatic passion that would have surprised the great Dickens himself.
Catching Oliver! in a dinner theater setting means eating first and then kicking back to watch the show. On Sunday, Toby’s above-average buffet menu featured a variety of imaginatively seasoned veggies, seafood, and meats as well as a decent salad bar and dessert course. Desserts include self-serve frozen confections complete with plenty of toppings.
As for the show itself? As I’ve already hinted, props and scenery are minimal and space is a bit cramped for production numbers that seemed somewhat under-scale.
On the plus side: the costuming by Janine Sunday is quite period authentic, adding a good bit of that lost London atmosphere right back in. The choreography by Tina Marie DeSimone is efficient and clever, almost turning lack of space into a virtue. Even better, the singing by the rest of the cast/chorus, including the eager youngsters, was crisp, bright, and professional.
Truth be told, it’s really the performers themselves who bring this version of Oliver! to life on stage. They clearly love doing the show, are fully involved in their roles, and go all out to sell each song and ensemble.
Every decent Oliver! starts with a decent Oliver. Sunday evening, 4th grader T.J. Langston certainly fit the bill, playing a winsome, lovable, yet feisty little tyke. While his voice is still developing, he hit the right notes and projected his character with confidence.
He also proved physically resilient – poor Oliver gets cuffed about quite a lot in this show. But young T.J. can take a healthy shot, hold his own, and bounce back for the next production number. (John Morrison will sing this role in some performances.)
Our young hero is surrounded by a batch of quirky, eccentric, and occasionally dangerous adults—i.e., classic Dickensian characters—who pull him in all directions, some of them not very promising.
Chief among these misfits is substitute dad and pocket-picker-in-chief Fagin, played and sung with oily relish by David Bosley-Reynolds. Fagin’s right-hand boy, the Artful Dodger (an equally artful Aviad Bernstein) effectively functions as his COO, marshaling Fagin’s phalanx of boys into a formidably organized army of clever thieves. (Zachary McKinney alternates as the Dodger during some performances.)
More ominous, however, are those shadier types who flit in and out of the shadows. They’re more interested in what they can do to Oliver rather than what they can do for him.
Oliver’s bad experiences begin with the odious Mr. Bumble, the dandily attired workhouse manager. Profit comes first for Mr. B. The welfare of his orphan charges is a far-distant second in the pecking order. As Mr. Bumble, Andrew Horn presides over his villainous character with mustache twitching, Snidely Whiplash glee.
Poor Oliver is next forced to reside in a funeral parlor with the equally unpleasant Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Daniel L McDonald and Tina Marie DeSimone), another ill-bred couple benefiting from Dickens’ genius for picking snarky names to match his sleazy characters. As portrayed by McDonald and DeSimone, both Sowerberrys would be comfy in the bizarre cartoon world of Charles Addams.
An even nastier fellow is brutal Bill Sykes (Alan Hoffman). We don’t get to meet him up close and personal until the show’s second stanza. But his reputation precedes him, haunting the entire first act with unseen dread. Hoffman’s psychopathic Sykes skulks through the London underworld with palpable menace, rendering the show’s violent climax all the more credible.
Thankfully, not everyone in Oliver! is a bad guy. Mr. Brownlow, genially portrayed by Samn Huffer, is a decent fellow who ultimately does the right thing by Oliver. And Nancy (Maria Egler) and Bet (Amanda Ross) attempt to do likewise although Dickens’ deterministic deck is stacked against them. Adding to her own difficulties, the unfortunate Nancy has become Bill Sykes’ gal-pal. Her maternal affection for Oliver puts her on the path of no return.
Vocally, Nancy gets to work with the best songs in the show, especially her solo turn in “As Long As He Needs Me,” Oliver!’s signature tune. In Maria Egler, this production is fortunate to have a fine singer and strong actress. Egler’s Nancy is the perfect good bad girl, a tough, underworld moll with a heart of gold. She’s got the right proportion of swagger and tenderness, and infuses her singing with a warmth, power, and conviction blessedly devoid of annoying Broadway brassiness.
While Toby’s Oliver! certainly has its charms, I do have to question this production’s “orchestral” accompaniment.
The “orchestra,” in this case, is supplied by two instrumentalists, one playing what the program calls an “OrchExtra music enhancement system.” A kind of synthesizer, the “OrchExtra” supplies a surprisingly full, albeit somewhat artificial orchestral sound that reminds me of those old “Mighty Wurlitzer” theater organs that once supplied music for silent movies in the 1920s. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing,
But Sunday, this electronic box was played with a heavy hand and sounded a little bit more like a calliope, which was probably not the intent. The bass was juiced to a fare-thee-well and it was just too much noise. Perhaps the original idea was to give this production a 21st century kick while saving money on instrumentalists. But the accompaniment here was simply too obtrusive. It detracted from the sheer joy projected by the performers.
Hopefully, the “OrchExtra” will play more nicely with others for the remainder of this production’s run. Longer term, a good piano and drum set might actually work better for this kind of show if budgetary constraints are the real issue.
Dinner: 2 hours or less, depending on when you arrive.
Show: Approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes, plus an intermission time that may vary.
Author of play Lionel Bart
Directed by Shawn Kettering
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Mark Beachy . BaltimoreExaminer