Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Faulkner: "Oliver! the musical"

Faulkner University continues its delivery of award winning musicals, producing Lionel Bart's Oliver! the musical [1960] with an emphasis on the sentimental aspects of Oliver Twist, the Charles Dickens novel that is its source.

Set largely in the underworld lairs of 19th Century London, it tells the well-known story of the innocent orphaned boy Oliver [Crispin South at the August 17th performance], who gets caught up in the world of the city's pickpockets, prostitutes, and philanderers before being rescued by the benevolent well-to-do Mr. Brownlow [Allen Young], discovered by the end to actually be his grandfather.

Director and Scenic Designer Jason Clark South has cast his production with experienced and neophyte actors, some of whom he gathered from the community and local schools -- many of the Chorus of Orphans, and some in featured roles --  a good move for recruiting and for identifying some excellent vocal talent. -- And, it seems that most of the sound balance between instrument and voice has been fixed; a vast improvement over previous shows. Now, the actors' voices can be heard more distinctly, and the instrumentation is no longer distorted.

Some of Dickens' most memorable characters appear here: Oliver, of course, along with the Artful Dodger [Blake Mitchell on August 17th], his mentor in the pickpocketing trade; Fagin [Brandtley McDonald], the conniving leader of the gang of child pickpockets; Mr. Bumble [Bret Morris] and Widow Corney [Kim Bradley], a fine comic couple who sell Oliver to the nasty undertakers, the Sowerberrys [Tyler Parker & Jesse Alston] when Oliver dares to ask for more gruel at dinner and is thought to be a trouble-maker. -- And, on the darker side, the former pickpocket Nancy [Alicia Ruth Jackson] is under the control of a ruthless burglar/pimp Bill Sykes [Chase McMichen].

Bart's version of Dickens is largely sanitized, though it does pay some attention to the novel's important themes: criticism of London's "poor laws" and the conditions of the underprivileged (especially children), rampant crime, and a "blind eye" attitude of many individuals in better circumstances. -- Yet, the criminal element in Oliver! the musical are treated with some compassion: Fagin, a career criminal living off the orphans he intimidates, seems to try to reform; Nancy gives her life to protect Oliver from her abusive lover, Bill Sykes. And it is Sykes alone who is given no hope of reclamation.

In keeping with this, Mr. South's production applies stage grime on the faces of the orphans, but the rest looks rather clean. And characters are drawn with bold strokes rather than subtleties, all in service of telling an inoffensive story that can deliver comforting messages: good is rewarded while evil is punished...both appropriate to Dickens and Bart.

There are some strong performances and some excellent voices on the Faulkner stage: Mr. Mitchell creates an energetic and charismatic Artful Dodger; Ms. Jackson is a passionate Nancy; Mr. Morris and Ms. Bradley are an excellent double-act; young Mr. South's depiction of Oliver is sensitive and credible [this young man has a track record at Faulkner and in several productions at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival]; Mr. Mc Donald gives his all to Fagin, showing a lot of promise in playing a character much too old for him; and Mr. McMichen, reliable as always, storms the stage as Bill Sykes in Act II and rivets our attention from then on.

But it is the music that carries the day; some of Mr. Bart's most recognizable songs are solidly rendered by the talented cast -- "Food, Glorious Food" opens the show with gusto; "Where Is Love" is sung with sensitivity by Mr. South; to introduce Oliver to the gang of pickpockets, "Consider Yourself" is an energetic rendering by Mr. Mitchell and the chorus; "I'd Do Anything" is a clever tribute to love; Oliver's "Who Will Buy?" adds an optimism to his new life; and Ms. Jackson's pathetic "As Long As He Needs Me" is heartfelt.

The production comes in at a neat two hours. Though the Faulkner stage is sometimes cramped with set pieces and a large cast of characters, and there are noticeable distinctions between newcomers and veteran actors, good voices and an ability to deliver each song's intention make for an enjoyable evening.