In the mood for some local musical theater this weekend?
Consider yourself fortunate: This summer’s Oregon Musical Theatre Festival performance of “Oliver!” is one of the most entertaining shows to grace a Douglas County stage in recent memory.
For the music lovers in our midst, the production delivers toe-tapping anthems such as “Consider Yourself” and “Food, Glorious Food.” Local bibliophiles will find enough colorful Dickensian characters to make them want to reread “Oliver Twist.” And straight-up drama lovers may enjoy a range of memorable performances and some fine stagecraft to boot.
Few of us, surely, are unfamiliar with Oliver’s catchphrase “Please, sir, I want some more,” which must be second only to Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, everyone!” for the frequency with which it is quoted, parodied, or otherwise repurposed. However, for the benefit of those who don’t know Oliver’s whole history, his is the story of an orphan in 19th-century England who gets bounced from one oppressive living situation to the next until he finds himself in grime-besmeared Industrial Age London.
There he befriends a street-savvy young pickpocket nicknamed The Artful Dodger, who brings him “home” to meet the rest of his gang and their leader, Fagin, a grizzled old fence who takes in strays like Oliver and teaches them to thieve pocketbooks, handkerchiefs, watches and anything else they can get their grubby little hands on. In exchange, he provides shelter and a measure of protection from the cold, cruel world.
Although this production contains as many fine performances as it does high-stepping workhouse orphans, one of the finest belongs to Douglas High School Band Director Bob Carwithen, who plays Fagin. An “avaricious skeleton of a man,” Carwithen’s Fagin cringes and cavorts about the stage in a long coat and scraggly ZZ Top beard, alternately coaching, chiding and joking around with his little brood of bandits, for whom he is a sort of father figure.
Warbling through songs like “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation,” Carwithen’s Fagin is as charming as he is conniving, smacking his chops and twitching like some smack-addled junkie. It is one of Dickens’ most memorably conflicted characters, and Carwithen nails it.
This performance is nicely complemented by that of Brittney Eagan, who plays one of Fagin’s protégés, Nancy. Nancy is a complicated character who, though long since corrupted by Fagin and in love with the murderous Bill Sikes, displays great heroism in the story in trying to protect Oliver.
Eagan’s portrayal of Nancy is lively and wonderfully nuanced, but it is her powerful voice that steals the show. From the full-throated bombast of her barroom ballad “Oom-Pah-Pah!” to her poignant paean to co-dependency, “As Long As He Needs Me,” Eagan’s vocals deliver some of the production’s most touching moments.
The emotionally delicate among us must soon dry our eyes, however, to make way for comedic gems from the likes of Jack Holland and Esther Hanson, who play Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, and Hugh Heinrichsen and Kelli Finlay, who play Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, respectively.
Heinrichsen and Finlay are particularly entertaining, first as moon-eyed lovers prone to furtive groping at the workhouse where Oliver’s life of servitude begins, and later as a disenchanted married couple in a mortal struggle for marital dominance (spoiler alert — the female of the species reigns supreme, here as ever).
Heinrichsen’s daughter, Eden, plays the title role of Oliver with far more panache than any girl her age has a right to, though she is far from alone in this category. Nearly half of the 56 actors Director Troy Pennington had to work with are children, some appearing barely ready for kindergarten and no less poised for their want of years. This state of affairs dials up the cuteness factor considerably, to say nothing of the energy level, which is one of this musical’s strongest selling points.
Special kudos belong to the high priests (and priestess) of stagecraft in this production — lighting designer Kelsey Anglin, costume designer Angie Wright, and set construction guru Clint Baldwin — and, of course, to Music Director Jason Heald and the musicians under his direction. Nineteenth-century London is so powerfully evoked, and the music of Lionel Bart so artfully rendered, that this two-plus-hour performance feels far too short.
In fact, if you manage to leave the theater without a grin on your face and a song in your heart, you may want to have your pulse checked. Consider yourself warned.
• Christian Bringhurst teaches language arts at Camas Valley Charter School and is a former reporter and editor at The News-Review.