Review: Oliver!

It has been at least twenty years since my wife and I made the journey into outer suburban Maryland to the Olney Theater. Now I remember why. If you live in Northern Virginia, even during non rush hours it is a pain to get to Olney, Maryland. Olney, which still has the feel of a distant suburb, sits a dozen or so miles north of Silver Spring. It is accessible only by roads chock full of traffic lights. It struck me as an odd place for a professional theater. The Olney Theater though has a storied history. It has been entertaining Marylanders since 1938. My father, a Washington native (who attended the show with us) remembers the theater when he was a boy. It hosts numerous plays and musicals every year, many of them top notch productions. Their latest is their family production of the 1968 Broadway hit musical Oliver! Charles Dickens of course wrote the original book Oliver Twist on which the musical is based. We caught the Sunday matinee.

Our family enjoys a good musical. We especially enjoy a decent production where we do not have to pay an arm and a leg for tickets. The Olney Theater straddles the middle ground between polished theaters like Washington’s National Theatre which often brings touring versions of Broadway shows and community theaters. With adult ticket prices for Oliver between $29 and $39, and with kids under 18 half price (plus a modest discount for senior citizens), going to see Oliver is easier on your wallet than going to see some of the other high-class theater in the area.

At the Olney Theater, all the adults are all professional actors. However, Oliver is also a production full of children. Could this ensemble put together a good performance? The answer is mixed. The boys rotate between performances. Fortunately, the boy I saw who played the central part of Oliver was quite good. He could not have been more than ten years old yet he had a surprising amount of stage presence and even a good singing voice. The principle roles are cast solidly. Oliver completely fails without someone excellent in the role of Fagan. Andrew Long does not disappoint as Fagan. Brian Sgambati is also appropriately threatening as Bill Sikes. Fortunately he is not so threatening as to have the younger children in the audience (and there were plenty) heading for the exit. I also really enjoyed Stephen Carter-Hicks as Mr. Bumble (and a number of other parts) and Peggy Yates in the role of Nancy.

The whole production is staged on one set, which while it offers an efficient use of space, fails to convey a sense of place during the many scene changes. The lighting was often rather dim. The theater had a smoky look to it, making it hard to suspend disbelief during “outdoor” scenes. Having never seen Oliver before, the production seemed like it must have been trimmed. Subtracting intermissions, it was less than two hours long. Perhaps this is a good strategy since children are not known for being able to sit for long periods unless they are attached to a Game Cube. The plot moved briskly, leaving little time for character development.

For a children’s musical, it still works. It conveys many adult themes about the way children used to be treated (and still are in some places of the world). Children are likely to find it both educational and amusing. However, discerning theatergoers like my family will probably not feel like they got a bargain from this production. Nevertheless, they should feel they got what they paid for: a solid but not overly memorable performance with some dated but still catchy tunes. You will probably find it a pleasant way to keep your children and yourself entertained for a few hours. However, you probably will not be recommending that your friends see it too.

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