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LAUREL – The musical “Oliver!” – currently playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse – is of course based on Charles Dickens’ early novel “Oliver Twist.”
The book is noted for its melodramatic scenes, filled as it is with lines such as “Oh! the suspense, the fearful, acute suspense, of standing idly by while the life of one we dearly love, is trembling in the balance! Oh! The racking thoughts that crowd upon the mind, and make the heart beat violently and the breath come thick…”
Mind you this is from one of the less important, less dramatic scenes – one which is usually cut from most stage productions!
A plot summary will serve most readers more as a reminder of the story than as an introduction to it, as the tale of Oliver Twist has become much a part of our culture, even making its way into cartoons such as “Oliver and Company.”
Young Oliver (very young in the musical, perhaps slightly older in the novel itself) is in a workhouse, the fate of orphans in early 1800s England. Oliver is apprenticed to an undertaker (here the sparse black setting of the stage works exceptionally well) and then escapes – falling into the hands of thieves.
He is led astray by Fagin, leader of a den of thieves, and young pickpocket the Artful Dodger, both of whom are presented as lovable rogues in the musical (though depicted in more sinister terms in the novel). Oliver is threatened at turns by violent criminal Bill Sykes and protected by Sykes’ girlfriend, Nancy.
Kelvin Dukes makes a wonderful Oliver. This talented young man acts and sings well, most strikingly in a beautiful stylistic rendition of Oliver’s lament, “Where is Love?” The other standout performer is Daniella Hernandez-Fujigaki as Nancy.
Her charisma in acting the part, excellent cockney accent, and thrilling voice are among the strongest elements in the production. Her rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” is both poignant and heartfelt.
The other actors are also very good. Kevin A. Wilson is effective as a menacing, club-wielding Bill Sykes.
Malarie Zeeks is in lovely voice as Mrs. Bumble in “I Shall Scream,” a song most audiences may not have heard, as it was not included in the 1968 film production of the musical.
Curt Somers is a humorous and likable Fagin, dressed in a black cape or coat with colored pockets to intimate he is the boys’ teaching master for pickpocketing. Shayna Bloom is a buoyant Artful Dodger, especially performing well with Dukes/Oliver in the piece “Consider Yourself at Home.”
It is likely that most of us know “Oliver Twist” more through adaptations than through reading it. One of the most famous of these is indeed this Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!,” which became an Oscar-winning 1968 film. The musical has since secured a place in popular culture with its familiar tunes.
However, the production now playing at the Laurel Mill Theatre, with its solo piano accompaniment, reminds one less of the 1968 film and more of the 1922 silent film, which featured then-popular child actor Jackie Coogan, and which was informed by Victorian melodramatic culture embodied in many of Dickens’ works. The solo musical accompaniment by a keyboardist gives the production (directed by John Cusumano and choreographed by Miranda Snyder) an earnestness of bygone days completely in keeping with the Dickens’ melodramatic novel we have quoted above.
The same can be said of the modest Laurel Mill Playhouse, with its charming antique shop storefront and its dark, narrow corridors in which one passes the Victorian-dressed actors performing the likes of orphan Oliver and thief Fagin, brutish Bill Sikes and sweet, hardened Nancy, greedy Mr. Bumble and the crafty Artful Dodger himself. The monochrome orphans’ clothing and the simple dark black stage set again remind one of the black-and-white, good versus evil, the dichotomy of great melodrama – and also of much of Dickens, and also of 1920s black-and-white cinema.
The Artful Dodger character, serving as comic relief, supports the productions 1920s melodramatic cinematic tendency by reminding us a bit of Charlie Chaplin, with thick eyebrows, dark eye makeup, and a beat-up formal gentleman’s suit and hat.
All in all, this production – which runs through Dec. 16 – is a very entertaining drama. While it is delightful to hear the famous Lionel Bart musical score again, the production might best leave its mark in recalling the melodramatic fiction and stage traditions of Dickens’ time…and also in preparing us for the season of Dickens’ holiday-themed work “A Christmas Carol!”