Many will buy ‘wonderful feeling’ of ‘Oliver”
BOSTON — In the second act of the musical “Oliver,” the title character, sent on a mission to return some books, comes upon a myriad of vendors selling their wares in a city square in London and asking “Who will buy?” Oliver Twist, played by Charlie Clinton, breaks into song and asks “Who will buy this wonderful feeling?”
The answer appears to be just about everyone, including many families in the Greater Boston area. A recent matinee performance of the musical “Oliver” at the Wheelock Family Theatre, in residence at Wheelock College, appeared to be a complete sellout, and why not?
Director Susan Kosoff seamlessly melds some of the best professional talent in the area with promising young amateur talent, many of whom are veterans of Wheelock programs.
Clinton, in particular, sings like an angel as he plaintively asks “Where is Love?“ and has the requisite spunkiness to portray an orphan who survives a slew of troubles on his way to finding a real home.
“Oliver” is based on the Dickens novel “Oliver Twist” and it is a pretty darn bleak work about hard times in the 19th Century. The book and the musical portray starving orphans, a den of juvenile crooks, a villain battering a woman who works as a prostitute and murder, just to name a few of the seamier parts.
But Lionel Bart’s book for the musical is more upbeat than the source material and the score is replete with upbeat, optimistic tunes, even when starving orphans are longing for the square meal they never get (“Food, Glorious Food”) or Nancy the prostitute (Brittany Rolfs) is proclaiming her love for the man who abuses her (“As Long as He Needs Me.”)
Kosoff has assembled a fine cast. Timothy John Smith is one nasty act as the villainous Bill Sykes, a monster who even gives villains a bad name.
Dan Dowling Jr as Mr. Bumble and Gamalia Pharms as the Widow Corney provide some much-needed comic relief. Bumble, who oversees the orphans’ workhouse as he courts the widow, sells off Oliver to an undertaker, only to find out later he may be the son of a wealthy man and command a healthy reward. They combine for a hilarious “tribute” to marriage in the second act.
For the longest time, nothing goes well for Oliver and that includes his short-lived stint working for Cliff Odle as the odious undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and M. Lynda Robinson, who has a hilarious turn as his equally odious wife in the funny musical number “That’s Your Funeral.”
“That’s what happens when you feed them meat,“ Bumble scolds when he finds out Oliver has run away. “You should have stuck with gruel.”
Oliver then takes up with The Artful Dodger (Jeffrey Sewell) and joins the troupe of youthful pickpockets overseen by the scheming Fagin.
It’s very likely you will forget Jane Staab is a woman in her portrayal as Fagin, who oversees the den of young thieves and provides a “home” of sorts for them. Staab is a very capable and cunning Fagin and there is a little twist at the end in a nod to her gender in what Staab calls in her bio “the underreported history in the role of Fagin, of women surviving in a troubling society by dressing as a a man.”
Choreographer Laurel Conrad has moving smartly around the stage in the numerous production numbers.
It was heartening to see the excellent behavior on the part of the younger members of the audience, who knew when to express appreciation, and when to be quiet, and the amount of bonding going on between grandparents and grandchildren.
The good news is that “Oliver” will be around rest of the month and is a faithful, fun take on a musical theater classic and yes, despite the murder and the mayhem, it is suitable for all ages.
The Wheelock also makes it a point to make their productions accessible to both the visually-impaired and hearing-impaired. Further information on that is available at the theater’s website: wheelockfamilytheatre.org.
The Wheelock Family Theatre production of “Oliver.” Book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, based on the Dickens novel “Oliver Twist.” Directed by Susan Kosoff. Choreography by Lauren Conrad. Music direction by Jon Goldberg. At the Wheelock Family Theatre, 180 The Riverway, Boston through Feb. 24. Wheelockfamilytheatre.org.