Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pike Road Theatre Company: "Oliver!"

The River Region welcomed its newest community theatre last weekend: the Pike Road Theatre Company opened with director James Keith Posey's ambitions production of the popular Lionel Bart musical Oliver! in the Pike Road Intermediate School auditorium. -- And there's a lot more to come in its inaugural season.

The 45-member acting ensemble [35 of them from Pike Road] performed in front of an enthusiastically supportive audience comprising families and several local dignitaries. -- This support, as well as participation and encouragement from across the River Region, is essential in developing this fledgling organization who are currently on a shoestring budget and operating without much of the requisite theatrical equipment. -- But this has not deterred them in the least from offering a lively and polished production that is full of energy and talent.

Based on the Charles Dickens classic 1837 novel Oliver Twist that contains some of English Literature's most enduring characters, Bart's score contains many of musical theatre's memorable songs that develop plot and character relationships while providing opportunities for actors to showcase their singing and dancing skills.

In Oliver!, we are introduced to young Oliver Twist in an orphanage, and follow his many escapades over two acts where scheming adults and clever children teach him how to survive in the larger Victorian London world of duplicitous grown-ups, rascal street-gangs, petty thieves, hardened criminals, and occasional sympathetic benefactors who ultimately discover his parentage and restore him to a loving family.

In the title role, Griffin Isbell immediately steals our collective hearts with a plaintive "Please, sir, I want some more" -- gruel, that is -- after the orphan chorus got the action going with a dynamic rendition of "Food, glorious food"; and is confronted by Sam Wallace's bravura depiction of Mr. Bumble and his flirtation with the Widow Corney [Mara Woddall], his partner in crime, who sell Oliver off for a profit ["Boy for sale"]. -- The Sowerberrys [Kevin Mohajerin and Savannah Bowden -- both in good voice in "That's your funeral" and with slick characterizations] are the nefarious purchasers of the boy, and set him to work at their funeral parlor to garner sympathy from the mourners.

Unhappy with his new position, Oliver sings "Where is Love" bemoaning the loss of his Mother in his solitude and mistreatment; so when he is taunted about his dead mother and placed in a coffin as punishment, the boy manages to escape and winds up on the street where he is befriended by the Artful Dodger [Zaylon Johnson: a major talent to watch out for in future]. -- Dodger brings Oliver to Fagin's den of street urchins, where he is immediately welcomed to the gang ["Consider Yourself"], and schooled in the art of pickpocketing handkerchiefs ["Got to pick a pocket or two"] by Fagin [Matthew Givens bridges between comic and sinister with ease; and whether he changes his ways at the end is inconclusive].

Most of this has been played for well-earned laughs in Bart's sanitized version of Dickens' grim satirical depiction of London's criminal underworld and mistreatment of orphaned children, but when Bill Sikes [Gage Leifried] shows up, things take a darker turn. Mr. Leifried strikes a threatening figure when he demands payment from Fagin for items he has stolen, and his demeanor colors much of the upcoming action, especially his violent domineering relationship with Nancy [Kaylee Baker in fine voice], a woman of the streets who has a soft spot for Oliver ["I'd do anything"].

When Oliver is captured on a pickpocketing escapade, Act II is mostly about finding the boy, but the Nancy/Sikes relationship gets a significant amount of attention; when Sikes hits Nancy and she defends him in "As long as he needs me", we see how abused women often defend their abusers in hopes that their love will make things better. Unfortunately, Nancy pays with her life when she tries to protect Oliver by standing up to Sikes.

Mr. Brownlow [Eric Arvidson] takes the injured Oliver into his home where a series of incidents shared by Dr. Grimwig [Jason Morgan], Mrs. Bedwin [Connie Carraway] and Old Sally [Elana Woodall] discover to them that Oliver is Brownlow's grandson...and all ends well.

The two-and-a-half-hours with the Pike Road Theatre Company is time well-spent. Songs resonate long after exiting the theatre, memorable characters have come to life and garner respect for the acting company, Raquel Whitehead's lively choreography keeps moments well in hand with full commitment from the ensemble, costumes [Emily Blossom] provide a clear delineation of time and character, and the whole of Mr. Posey's fine production of Oliver! shows promise of even better things to come.