Directed & Choreographed by Rachel Rockwell
Music Direction by Roberta Duchak
Produced by Drury Lane Productions
This lively revival of Bart’s timeless classic is an impeccably produced delight.
At the risk of being hyperbolic, let me just say that director Rachel Rockwell’s current staging of Lionel Bart’s smash-hit Oliver! is really nothing short of an exuberant success. Bursting forth with lush colors and a bevy of minutely observed Dickensian characters, this ingeniously staged and wholly unaffected production is a testament to Rockwell’s unflagging talents not only as a director-choreographer, but also as a first-rate storyteller.
The sustained popularity of Oliver!—loosely based on the classic novel by Charles Dickens (or more likely, David Lean’s 1948 film version)—is largely derived from the virtuosic talents of its composer and lyricist, Lionel Bart, who peppers the rise of Dickens’s iconic workhouse foundling with a rousing score of Old English folk songs, hymns, chorales and dances. From the stirring opening number “Food Glorious Food” to the hauntingly plaintive “Who Will Buy” to the insufferably catchy “Consider Yourself,” Bart’s spirited music continues to move each successive generation of theatergoers fifty years later.
There is a modern tendency in reviving musicals to over-accentuate their darkly psychological (or even symbolic) subtexts, as though always trying to adapt their perceived naivety to an increasingly cynical modern audience. Yet much to her credit, Rockwell’s production never succumbs to such trends, at once retaining Oliver!’s charming innocence without whitewashing its perverse themes of sex, death and abuse. In fact, this effective counterpointing of Oliver!’s light-hearted comedy with its darkly sadistic undertones is what makes Rockwell’s production so emotionally gratifying—like a piece of candy that’s equal parts sweet and sour.
Though if pressed to identify the sweetest element of Rockwell’s Oliver!, one need hardly go further than its staggeringly talented cast of young actors, each equipped with ripened comedic gifts and a matured sense of playful control. I’ve seen casts of grown adults with considerably less agile precision than these junior dancers who collectively execute Rockwell’s boldly intricate choreography with apparently synchronous ease. And Rockwell’s inventive stagings of “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “I’d Do Anything” make especially tremendous use of her pint-sized assets (keep a particularly keen eye on the delectable little scene-stealer, Matthew Uzarraga).
In the titular role of Oliver, Brady Tutton is almost too good to be true. With the vocal technique of a forty-year-old opera singer and the unadulterated sound of a cherub, it’s hard to imagine that Rockwell’s production (for all her immense talents) would be quite the unqualified triumph it is without him. And as the Artful Dodger, J.D. Rodriguez is incorrigibly charismatic, reeling his audience in with a mischievous smile and some powerhouse dance steps.
And as far as the “big people” go, they are thankfully not to be found wanting either. John Reeger as the inveterate pickpocket Fagan joyfully proves himself to be as big a kid as anyone else on stage, his playful sense of good humor as lovable as it is infectious. And Heidi Kettenring’s performance as Nancy, with her aching rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me,” sets the stage on fire. Equipped with an effusive spirit, her acutely likable performance is remarkably soul-stirring.
And technically speaking, Kevin Depinet’s ingeniously constructed sets are romantically evocative of Dickens’s Victorian England without ever being overwhelming or obstructive. And under Greg Hofmann’s lavish stage lighting, Theresa Ham’s meticulously constructed costumes of variously rich hues are sumptuous delights.
To be honest, you are unlikely to see such a professional and big-hearted production of this timeless classic anytime soon. That said, I suggest you take advantage of it while you can…
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Thursday, April 11th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Oliver! runs until June 2nd, 2013. Drury Lane Theater is located at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181. For tickets call the Drury Lane Theatre box office at (630) 530-0111, call TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or visit www.drurylane.com. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/oliver/6273/.