Kid Power

In Cain Park's Oliver!, the little ones save the day.

Fagin (George Roth) teaches Oliver (Lincoln Sandham) as the Dodger (Chris McCarrell) watches.
Fagin (George Roth) teaches Oliver (Lincoln Sandham) as the Dodger (Chris McCarrell) watches.
If you think there was a lot of pent-up anticipation for the last episodes of the Sopranos, you should have been around in the 1800s, when the masses were kept pining for the latest installments of Charles Dickens' serialized novels. It's said that in New York City, Dickens groupies actually stood on the pier, waiting for the next shipment and yelling out to the ship's crew to inquire about the fate of a favorite character.

That's how the classic Oliver Twist came to be, which explains why it's such a challenging story to cram into a two-hour musical such as Lionel Bart's Oliver!, now at Cain Park. Since Chuck continually layered on more characters and chapters, extending both the tale and his revenue stream, the result was a work fairly bursting with plot lines and quirky people with odd Dickensian names: Mr. Bumble, Dr. Grimwig, and the rest.

Back in 1960, Bart threw a lot of the novel's more obscure plotting overboard and focused on the songs he wrote -- a fine idea, since he came up with some dandy numbers. And in this production, the songs are still the heroes, backed with sleek professionalism by a 13-piece orchestra under the baton of Jodie Ricci. But even with a compelling tale and great music, this open-air production seems less than a sum of its parts, thanks to lapses in the pacing and book scenes that slog rather than snap.

If you don't know the story of poor orphan Oliver Twist, you have detention this week. Oliver was the perfect tool to express Dickens' rage at the poverty and class warfare that was rife in 19th-century England. Starting off in a horrific workhouse and moving through all strata of British society -- from Fagin's grimy den of pickpockets to the gracious Brownlow's cushy crib -- Oliver gives us a walking tour of degradation, survival, and finally, hope.

In a cast numbering almost 55(!), the real standout performers are those with virtually no lines of dialogue. The workhouse boys and girls, along with Fagin's motley crew, are consistently focused, disciplined, and energetic on stage. Credit their mature presence to director Fred Sternfeld and the gifted Martin Cespedes, who choreographed and staged musical numbers.

From the moment the ragamuffins enter the workhouse dining hall, they are in perfect lockstep, pounding out the memorable ditty "Food, Glorious Food" like they haven't had a spot of gruel for a week. As concentration goes, some of the more prominent players in this production (one of whom flubbed the title character's name) could learn something from watching these youngsters.

As Oliver, young Lincoln Sandham is appropriately thin, physically and vocally, lending a sweet, boy-soprano innocence to his sad solo, "Where Is Love?" But more could be made of his scrappy persona; his violent confrontation with bully Noah Claypole (Andrew Miller) goes by so fast that we aren't able to appreciate young Oliver's feisty side.

One of the most enduring characters is Fagin, played by George Roth, bedecked in a long, greasy wig and overcoat. Roth captures the right blend of mendacity and avuncular paternalism, teaching his brood how to nab a purse on the street in the feloniously jolly "(You've Got to) Pick a Pocket or Two."

Fagin is abetted in his nefarious activities by Nancy (strong-voiced Patty Lohr), another gutter rat who is in a doomed relationship with the vicious robber Bill Sykes (a snarly Bob Russell). The show's signature song, "As Long as He Needs Me," is Nancy's battered-woman tribute to misplaced affection. But the strength of Lohr's emotional presentation is hampered by Sternfeld's decision to have cast members perform a set change in the shadows behind her. This also happens during other songs, making one wish for a giant masking flat that could help focus attention where it belongs.

Sternfeld, masterful at managing large-cast shows, seems to lose his usually firm grip on character and pacing in several scenes. The dysfunctional Mr. Bumble (Kris Hebble) and Widow Corney (Juliet Regnier) seem more corny than comical. Chris McCarrell's Artful Dodger gives a less-than-electric rendition of the upbeat "Consider Yourself." And when the kids are asleep in the thieves' kitchen, Fagin wanders from his table to the fireplace, seemingly without purpose, until the audience begins to nod off too.

The multiple scenes are performed on and about impressive set pieces designed by Jeff Herrmann. But as visually stunning as some of the 20-foot-tall rolling units are, they seem to be a chore to move quickly and position properly.

This Oliver! just barely earns its exclamation point, thanks largely to the kid singers and dancers who repeatedly kick it back to life.