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Photo: National Arts Centre
Photo: National Arts Centre

Theatre Review: "Oliver!" at the National Arts Centre

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Oliver! is running at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa through December 31. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has this review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

The production of Lionel Bart’s OLIVER! currently running at the NAC is definitely non-traditional.  Director/choreographer Dayna Tekatch has taken a darker and more realistic look at the Dickens source material, plus all the roles are played by adults, members of the English Theatre Resident Company.  This immediately presents a couple of problems.  For one thing, casting choices are limited and a couple of the roles are badly mis-cast. 

The larger problem is that when all the roles are played by adults, both the physical and psychological threats of the adult villains toward the children are gone.  For example the opening scene is visually a bit scary and looks more like the asylum in MARAT/SADE than an orphanage.  Since these are adults, one would think they’d just gang up on the attendant and TAKE the food.  The concept runs into similar problems throughout, no matter how much we suspend our disbelief.

That said, there’s plenty that’s terrific about this production, first and foremost the work of Musical Director Allen Cole.  Being an old, (and I use the word literally), arranger and orchestrator myself, I listened with delight to the way he’s taken this traditional score and given it new life to support the concept, including the scene change music and underscoring.  With only three musicians, Mr. Cole on piano, accordion and percussion, Beth Sturdevant on cello and Mike Tremblay tripling on flute, bass clarinet and sax, he’s created a whole new texture.  I particularly liked the new arrangements of “That’s Your Funeral,” “Where Is Love?” and that classic ballad of co-dependence, “As Long As He Needs Me.”  Most audience members aren’t aware of how much they’re affected subliminally by orchestrations and arrangements.  Bravo, Mr. Cole!

Another highlight is the inventive choreography by Dayna Tekatch.  The production really comes to life with “Consider Yourself” and its creative contrast between welcome and menace.  “Pick a Pocket or Two” is especially good as is “I’d Do Anything” with its clever horses and carriage.  In “It’s a Fine Life” the pseudo Busby Berkley bit gave me my biggest laugh of the evening.

Eo Sharp’s unit set of black staircases, platforms and numerous entrances works very well for the production.  Her costumes are very good, especially in providing for the numerous quick changes.  As always Jock Munro’s lighting is very effective and Peter McBoyle’s sound design excellent.

As for the cast, Randi Helmers is fine as Widow Corney, although she’s a bit hamstrung by Jeremiah Sparks’ lackluster and humorless Mr. Bumble.  Kris Joseph is good as Mr. Sowerberry and sings very well, while Christian Murray is a nicely nasty Noah and makes an exceptional and equally nasty dog.  As Mr. Brownlow Greg Kramer is suitably benevolent while Dennis Fitzgerald as Dr. Grimwig brings a welcome bit of humor to the proceedings.

Jamie Mac gives a strong and believable performance as Charley Bates.  Jennifer Waiser has great fun as the Artful Dodger, an unusual and very good casting choice.  She’s also terrific as the widow’s cat, complete with kittens.

Thomas Olajide as Oliver and Shawn Wright as Bill Sykes are both victims of the concept; Oliver because of his obvious lack of any kind of frailty, (he’s bigger than his protector Nancy), and Bill because of the lack of any realistic threat.  There are enough adults on stage, including Oliver, to corral him successfully.

The stand-out performance is Joey Tremblay as Fagin.  He’s made the role his own and appears as a kind of wonderful dancing psychopath with eloquent hands and fingers.  His performance of “I’m Reviewing the Situation” brings down the house – and rightly so.

For me the concept just doesn’t work, up to and including the Brechtian ending.  If you want to mount a dark musical, stick with SWEENEY TODD or ASSASSINS.  However despite that, in this production there’s much to enjoy – some excellent performances, Miss Tekatch’s terrific choreography and Mr. Cole’s wonderful music.

On a scale of one to five the NAC production of OLIVER! gets three and three-fourths Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.

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