In the past few decades, there have been many Broadway musicals about dark and troubling topics such as Sweeney Todd (serial killer), Chicago (murder and venality) and Assassins (assassins). But that trend may have started way back in 1960 with Oliver! by Lionel Bart.
This retelling of Dickens' Oliver Twist is built around little orphan boys, that well-known eponymous lad among them, who are either being starved in a workhouse or led down a felonious, pick-pocketing path by a sinister old criminal. And then there's the abused woman who stands loyally by her violent man, until he kills her.
Of course, the nasty bits in these seamy doings are airbrushed away by Bart's wonderful music and a happy ending for Oliver. This production goes even further in soft-pedaling the unpleasant parts of the original source material. As directed by Terri Kent, this Oliver! works hard to ear its exclamation point, even though there are a couple somewhat sour notes along the way.
Musically, the show starts fast with the boys protesting their gruel-based diet in the upbeat "Food, Glorious Food." And here, Kent and choreographer MaryAnn Black get a gold star for casting really young kids (elementary school age) in these roles. The "boys" are a combination of boys and girls who have shorn their long hair and share the same smudged, ragamuffin vibe. Happily, these kids for the most part are disciplined little performers whose tender ages add an adorable yet poignant note to the proceedings.
When Oliver asks for more gruel, he is immediately sold off to work for an undertaker. Oliver soon escapes, however, and is wooed into the lair of old Fagin, where he joins a pack of snot-nosed kiddies who are being trained in the art of lifting wallets, watches and such off rich people.
Back in 1960, this Dickensian situation felt like a visit to a distant past where poor people were so desperate. But if the income inequality in this country continues to grow, Oliver! may seem more like a documentary based on current events and not an antiquated relic.
That said, this is meant to be an entertaining show, and it is, for the first two-thirds—and there are some rich portrayals by the Porthouse bunch. Eric van Baars is a slimy, snagly-haired presence as Fagin, and he has a fine time crooning the Act Two spotlight song "Reviewing the Situation."
The workhouse caretakers Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney are played by Timothy Culver and Lissy Gulick, and their early comical duet "I Shall Scream" is, well, a scream thanks to their well-trained voices and a talent for cadging laughs from this clever tune. And Culver does a bang-up job vocally on "Boy for Sale." The same is true for Brian Keith Johnson, who shows up as Fagin's scary pal Bill Sykes and nails his solo "My Name."
As Sykes' bruised girlfriend Nancy, Miriam Henkel-Moellmann sings the lovely "As Long As He Needs Me" with melodic precision but without much emotional gravitas. It's a vexing song, since it's kind of the theme song of the Stockholm Syndrome for beaten women ("Who else would love him still/When they've been used so ill").
In smaller roles, Marla Berg adds some nasty edge to Mrs. Sowerberry, one of the undertakers, and her assistant Noah Claypole is given a thuggish turn by Christopher D. Tuck. The lead young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, is played by Patrick Kennedy with an overly mellow attitude that doesn't allow us to see his character's sneaky artifice.
In the title role, middle-school-age Cameron Nelson represents the songs reasonably well. But there is too little boyish spunk in Nelson's manner, leaving something of a vacuum at the center of the show.
As for the final third of the two-hour show, it seems like composer, lyricist and book author Bart took a powder. Act Two is riddled with reprises, and the show ends rather abruptly with a confusing chase and no signature songs that we haven't heard earlier.
But a visit to this outdoor amphitheater, on the picnic-friendly grounds of Blossom Music Center, should always be part of every theater lover's summer agenda. If you can get a ticket, that is.
Through Aug. 10, Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.