As of this past Sunday, I may have been the last living American over the age 5 who had never seen the musical Oliver! Nor had I seen the film version, much less read Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, on which the whole franchise is based. In a strange way, I feel this qualifies me to speak objectively on the subject. Let me begin by saying, Poor Oliver!
Here’s the story of an orphan kid who pretty much gets yanked around from downstage left to upstage right and everywhere in between by a motley assortment of bullies, crooks, do-gooders, desperate women, avaricious men and, yes, jolly drunkards.
After all, the story is set in London, or rather, in the imagination of Mr. Dickens, circa 1837. And all we really know of young Oliver we glean from his one quavering solo early on, namely that he longs in a vague kind of way for love — or at least wonders where it is.
How this distinguishes him from the rest of humanity I’m not exactly sure. What does distinguish him, however, is his near-absolute passivity in relation to that longing. Unless I missed something, the only time in the show when Oliver actually does something of his own volition is the one fateful moment in the first major scene when he asks his tormenters for an extra bowl of gruel.
Don’t ask me what sort of message this is supposed to send to the children. Obviously, it hasn’t mattered to the generations of families who have loved the show since it premiered in London’s West End in 1960. And the packed-house audience at Asheville Community Theatre this past Sunday seemed more than eager to meet the show on its own terms.
Oliver! is a massive undertaking, with a large cast (mostly children, and all in period costumes), numerous set changes, challenging music, a stuffed cat, more handkerchiefs than you could shake a stick at, and to give it all one final “twist” (for us Americans): Cockney accents. But under Jerry Crouch’s direction, the whole thing comes off with nary a hitch.
As the title character, Tim Bates has a shy and captivating smile which he doesn’t over-use, as well as a charming air of slight bewilderment that is perfect for the role. His self-appointed pal, The Artful Dodger, is a charmer in his own right, and as played by Carl Kimbrough, he also has something of the premature dandy about him. Kimbough has remarkable stage presence for so young an actor, and combined with his clear singing voice and physical expressiveness, one has the feeling he’ll have a career in this business if he wants it badly enough.
The adult cast is equally impressive. Rachelle Roberts is a force to be reckoned with as the love-sick Nancy, and Richard Blue, as the clownish crook Fagin, has my personal favorite number in the show, “Reviewing the Situation,” which he delivers with wit, bravado and a surprising pair of lungs. Michael Cheek, who, unless I’m mistaken, was ACT’s 2007 “Diva,” gives a delightfully mincing interpretation of Mr. Bumble, and his scenes with Ruth Butler as Widow Corney are good fun.
But the star of the show, if I may put it thus, is the set. Or maybe the set and the costumes. Anyway: the stuff we get to look at. Doug MacKenzie has designed a remarkably detailed and versatile physical environment for the actors to work in. It’s a shame that their entrances and exits are sometimes so capriciously staged as to obscure this wonderful specificity. As far as the costumes, we’re looking at probably thousands of hours of labor on the part of the designer, Deborah Austin, and her team of stitchers. The actors are all dressed for their parts, and yet the costumes are also so imaginatively designed, that they lift the actors and the show into a kind of enhanced reality. It’s all, as we were reassured during the curtain speech, “make-believe.”
As of this writing, there are only three performances of Oliver! left. If you have kids, or even if you just like them, make your reservations soon.
Oliver!, music, lyrics, and book by Lionel Bart. Presented by Asheville Community Theatre. Directed by Jerry Crouch. Musical Direction: Chuck Taft; Technical Direction: Jill Summers; Scenic Design: Doug Mackenzie; Costume Design: Deborah Austin; Lighting Design: Rob Bowen; Stage Manager: Beth Mayo. Featuring: Tim Bates/Lincoln Belford, Carl Kimbrough/Jacob Hunt, Richard Blue, Rachelle Roberts, David Ely, Michael Cheek, Ruth Butler, Lindsey Salvati, Luke Boehm, Michael Wilson, Eliza Gilbert, Jessica Savitt, Austin Kellenberger, Jeff Grudin, Kelli Mullinix, Beverly Todd, Doug Hauschild, Shirley Cohen/Ginger Haselden, et. al. (Be aware that there are actually two rotating casts for certain roles in the show.) Musicians: Oleg Melnikov, Sabrina Kumar, Jim Anthony, Tim Morgan, Justin Watt, Nora Vetro. Production runs through October 3, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $22/$19/$12. ACT is located on E. Walnut Street in downtown Asheville. For tickets: 828-254-1320 or visit http://www.ashevilletheatre.org.
Photo by Ewa Skowska.