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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Oliver! works best in its darker moments

There is a light side and a dark side to Oliver! The trick is in knowing how to balance the two.

Even while this Lionel Bart musical adaptation never quite reaches the gloomiest depths of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist on which it is based, there is still an undercurrent of the original material that sees our young hero abused, sold into slavery, and exploited by a bunch of thieves.

Perhaps in keeping with the summer season and in an effort to appeal to the Theatre Under the Stars family target market, director Shel Piercy attempts to keep things much brighter than its source material dictates, and even what this musical demands. The result is an uneven production that has a tough time finding the right balance in its tone, with the bulk of this production’s success coming in those fleeting moments where it is more serious.

That lighter tone is set from the start, with the rousing opening number “Food, Glorious Food” where Oliver and his fellow orphans witness the largesse of those in charge, but there is little of the requisite desperation. When Oliver then finds himself sold to an undertaker, the fear and loneliness that he experiences, and underscored by the beautifully haunting “Where is Love”, is diminished with the appearance of dancing zombies.

Things do take on a more suitably lighter feel as Oliver escapes to London and meets up with the Artful Dodger, and even though he finds himself inside a den of thieves, there is a real sense of belonging. Welcomed to his new family with the wonderful “Consider Yourself”, Piercy robs the audience of one of the show’s most familiar and loved songs by interrupting it with an audience sing-a-long and effectively removes the momentum of the story.

Piercy doesn’t help by allowing some of the performances to go big to the point of almost being cartoonish. Mr. Bumble is reduced to a caricature and his saucy interactions with the Widow Corney are played for a bawdy comedic relief that is entirely out-of-place. A number of the characters also find themselves stuffing their face with food, and while it may be designed to highlight the difference between the haves and have nots, it unfortunately misses its mark as comedy.

The cast of the Theatre Under the Stars production of Oliver! Photo by Tim Matheson.
Members of the cast of the Theatre Under the Stars production of Oliver! Photo by Tim Matheson.

There are many bright lights in this cast, starting with a wonderful ensemble who give it their all in a show with so many unforgettable songs and some dazzling production numbers. They dance and sing their way through this massive show with incredible skill that belies many of their young ages.

Finding the right balance between the light and the dark is Elizabeth Marie West as Nancy, who fights against her love for the career criminal Bill Sykes and her desire to do the right thing by Oliver. Her rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me” is one of the show’s highlights.

Nathan Piasecki brings the plucky and street-smart Artful Dodger to life and Stephen Aberle, who oddly has to play double-duty as Mr. Brownlow, manages to give Fagin the weird likeability that this quirky role demands, along with a wonderful singing voice. Erin Palm weaves in and out of the story as The Rose Seller with one of the best voices of the night.

And then of course, there is Oliver himself. Played by 11-year old Carly Ronning, she nails the sweetly shy lad with the precision of a seasoned pro.

Kerry O’Donovan conducts his small and accomplished orchestra atop two Victorian inspired wing sets from set designer Brian Ball that frames the large playing space that allows for the bigger production numbers from choreographers Keri Minty and Shelley Stewart-Hunt. Chris Sinosich’s costumes are suitably drab with pops of colour.

One can’t help but admire the ambition of tackling such a huge show and fulfilling a desire to bring younger actors back into the Theatre Under the Stars family. I only wish there had been more trust put in the material and in the audience’s ability to cross over to the dark side, even on a warm summer night.

Oliver! Music, books and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Directed by Shel Piercy. A Theatre Under the Stars production, playing in repertory with Hairspray at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park until August 22. Visit for tickets and information.

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