You Will Find Lots of Love In Drury Lane's OLIVER!
Nobody sees the world in the way Rachel Rockwell does. Case in point, her new poignant production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, which opened last night at the Drury Lane Theatre. Ms. Rockwell, one of the best in the business, has a vision that is crystal clear and the result is a manifest of emotions, some of which will knock you right off your theatre seat.
Based on Charles Dickens’ novel about a young orphaned boy, Oliver Twist, Mr. Bart’s musical has become one the classic scores and most produced shows in the canon of musical theatre, along with the 1968 Academy Award winning film version which cemented its popularity. The novel and show are both dark in tone and substance dealing with issues such as child labor/slavery, mental and physical abuse and class warfare. All these issues were classic Dickens’ staples, but until Oliver!, never really seen in a musical to that emotional and truthful level.
Then there is Mr. Bart’s brilliant score, which remains one of the best ever written. From “Food, Glorious Food”, to “Consider Yourself”, there is nary a weak song in the production (though as years go by, perhaps not all are as well placed as they should be), and is this still one of those musicals that actors yearn to be a part of. Who could ever forget Ron Moody’s classic “Reviewing the Situation” as Fagin or Georgia Brown belty key change in “As Long As He Needs Me”? Since the mid-1970’s producer Cameron Macintosh has kept Oliver! relevant with some needed updating in tone and structure and an unforgettable Jonathan Pryce as Fagin in the mid-ninties. Mr. Macinstosh has a new production arriving on Broadway next season featruing Les Mis’ Samantha Barks as Nancy, which will surely fit in nicely with the rival of Annie and the newest (and by far best offering) Tim Michin’s Matilda.
For Drury Lane’s new production, in many ways, Ms. Rockwell plays it safe, especially as far as casting is concerned. In most aspects, this pays off spectacularly. In fact, watching Heidi Kettenring blow the roof of Mr. DeSantis’ theatre with “As Long As He Needs Me” will go down as one of my favorite theatre moments in recent memory. Ms. Kettenring is reason enough to see this production.
Oliver! is really only as good as the young actors cast in very demanding roles. To this end, Ms. Rockwell hits it out of the park. Brady Tutton is by far the most conscious of any of the dozens upon dozens of Oliver Twists I have ever seen. He is vocally dominant, when most who play this role use a mere whisper and seems to understand the damage of his character’s life. Not so easy a task for an eleven year old. Same with J. D. Rodriquez’ energetic Artful Dodger, who gets the musical rolling into high gear after a very uneven start.
As Ms. Rockwell innately knows choreography, the production numbers with both children and adults are seamless, as are the scene transitions. Kevin Depinet’s designs one of his best sets to date which are beautifully lit by Greg Hofmann, and Theresa Ham’s ornate and accurate costumes only add to the innate physical beauty of this show.
Where this production sometimes falters is with some of the stalwarts who seem to be far to comfortable with how their respective roles were played in the past, adding nothing new or remotely interesting to these meaty parts. Also, in the second act, much of the final 15 minutes seemed very rushed and I am still trying to figure out the timing on Inspector Javert’s (oops, I mean Bill Sikes) bridge plunge.
However, the biggest issue with this Oliver! has absolutely nothing to do with Ms. Rockwell or the cast. Instead, and it pains me to say this, it is with the orchestra who seemed to be fighting the cast at every moment. There were several songs where the orchestra was a half beat behind and others where the cast was forced to play catch up. More than that, the orchestrations by William David Brohn (additional orchestrations by Carey Deadman) are so thin that some points one would think you are listening to a rehearsal rather then a full blown production. There also seemed to be an issue with some of the amplifications, especially stage left, which may have caused some of the unevenness of the pit players.
That aside, this is still a forthright and stunning production on most every level. Oliver! must be viewed as a time centric entity, as without that, many of the issues will seem to be unbelievable in a modern musical setting.
That is not to say Oliver! is irrelevant. To the contrary. Mr. Dickens’ telescopic lens on wealth, poverty, abuse and love are occurring right before our very eyes, every minute of the day. Just like young Oliver Twist, all we really want is to find love; love of self first and foremost then to have the love of another. That is something Ms. Rockwell and her cast will fill your heart with with when you walk out of the theatre.
OLVIER! runs through June 2, 2013 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, OakBrook, Illinois. The performance schedule for OLIVER! is as follows: Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. ($35), Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. ($35) and 8 p.m. ($45), Fridays at 8 p.m. ($49), Saturdays at 5 p.m. ($49), and 8:30 p.m. ($49), and Sundays at 2 p.m. ($49), and 6 p.m. ($45). Lunch and dinner theatre packages range from $50 to $74 depending on the day of the week. Student group tickets start as low as $30 and Senior Citizens start at $32 for matinees and $47 for a matinee luncheon package. For reservations call theDrury Lane Theatre box office at 630.530.0111, call TicketMaster at 800.745.3000 or visit www.drurylane.com. For calendar information please visit www.TheatreInChicago.com