That old stalwart Oliver! presents a special challenge for theater: It has a whole lot of kids in the cast.
The production that runs through October 2 at The Shedd as part of the Shedd Theatricals series must have 20 kids on stage at the same time, acting, singing and dancing — and they pull it off with verve and style.
Oliver himself, played here by a young lady named Kenady Conforth, is right on top of the role. Conforth has a sweet young soprano that’s perfect for songs like “Where is Love” and “Who Will Buy.”
Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, the musical — with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, for whom it would be his best known work — opened in London’s West End in 1960 and got to Broadway in 1963. It was made into a 1968 film that took several Oscars. With its rough and tumble rags to riches story, the play has been pretty much in continuous production somewhere in the world for more than half a century.
The Shedd show, directed by Peg Major, with music direction by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, is a fine production with occasional moments of glory.
The first of those comes in the Act I, when Oliver, who has been causing problems at the orphanage, is sold to the undertakers, the Sowerberrys, played here as goth Addams Family figures by Matthew Woodward and by Christopher herself. Christopher, who danced for two seasons with Ballet Fantastique, glides onto the stage like a tall, raven-black puppet, an amazing sight. The audience sighed.
She could have stolen the show at that moment, but then Lynnea Barry, as the bad guy Bill Syke’s girl Nancy, sings the desperately sad “As Long as He Needs me” to close out Act II, her sheer power and loveliness overcoming contemporary issues of sensitivity to domestic abuse (she’s got a black eye from Bill as she’s singing).
And then there’s Sykes himself, played powerfully by Ward Fairbairn, who I last saw as the creepy vice principal in Cottage Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Ffinally there’s Fagin, the over-the-hill shyster thief who runs the gang of young thieves into which Oliver is inducted. Tom Wilson’s got this one down; his Fagin is softer and sweeter then I recall ever seeing, a man who has lived a life of vice and is now confronting his destiny with humor and grace. He also sings a treat.
All in all, a great show. Go see it.