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at Syracuse Stage, Syracuse, NY, Sunday, December 2 through Sunday, December 30, 2001
The production of OLIVER! at Syracuse Stage has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, it's not A CHRISTMAS CAROL, although it is based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, strayed a bit from Dickens. In this production, Director Robert Moss has taken a few well-chosen liberties with the script. He's incorporated direct quotations from the book and has used them to tie together the many scenes and characters. The opening scene is particularly effective in its use of the book and Mr. Brownlow's narration.
The cinematic flow is helped considerably by Erhard Rom's interesting and versatile set. It provides plenty to look at, as do Jared Leese's colorful costumes, especially the wonderful bonnets and Fagin's fabulous dressing gown. Anthony Salatino is responsible for the lively choreography. The reprise of "Who Will Buy" is extremely powerful and is made even more so by Phil Monat's use of harsh white lighting.
Since OLIVER! is a musical, not a setsical or dansical, let me say that the music under Corinne Aquilina's direction is terrific. The soloists and chorus all sound great, and you'd never believe there are only four musicians in the pit. Ms. Aquilina's use of electronic keyboards to augment the acoustic instruments makes it sound more like 25. By the way, she's also a top-notch pianist.
This material sets traps for unwary actors. Most of the characters are very broad and, when the characterizations are fully rounded, they're wonderful. Lynn Eldridge, doubling as Widow Corney and Mrs. Bedwin, is a joy to watch, as is Ric Stoneback, who doubles as Mr. Bumble and Dr. Grimwig. Their duet, "I Shall Scream," is delightful. These characters are over the top, but are firmly grounded in reality. Malcolm Ingram is a strong presence as Mr. Brownlow. He is just as effective this year as he was in ROMEO AND JULIET last spring.
Unfortunately Lance Phillips, who plays both Mr. Sowerberry and Bill Sykes, has fallen into the one-dimensional villain trap, especially when he sings. He's also a bit difficult to understand. On the other hand, Alicia Irving who doubles as Mrs. Sowerberry and Nancy, (both these doublings an interesting choice by Director Moss), is an excellent actress who understands the style and maintains her believability. Ms. Irving has a perfect voice for Nancy, and does a powerful job with that classic ballad of co-dependence, "As Long As He Needs Me."
Rodney Scott Hudson is a wonderful Fagin. Robert Moss has given him a great entrance. His rendition of "Reviewing the Situation" is great fun. Mr. Hudson has a twinkle in his eye, fabulous fingers, and one of my all time favorite lines, "Shut up and drink your gin!"
There are two young men alternating in the title role. The one I saw, Wesley Callihan, was excellent and has a lovely singing voice. I applaud the director's decision to have the boys play the role as an independent survivor rather than as a pitiful waif.
Robert Moss has made one change that I think is a mistake, although I understand the reasoning behind it. Bill Sykes gets what he wants from Nancy by kissing her roughly rather than walloping her. Removing the physical abuse, while laudable, leaves us totally unprepared for the violence of the murder. However, most of his other changes work extremely well. I loved his clever touch of using Lauren Fruchter as the cat, which sets us up for Jordan Bass's athletic and entertaining portrayal of the dog.
Although OLIVER! runs two and a half hours, the many children in the audience were never restlessthey were enthralled. Artistic Director Robert Moss has made a good choice for a holiday production. On a scale of one to five, the Syracuse Stage production of OLIVER! gets four and a half oranges. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.