Under the smart and insightful watch of director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, Drury Lane Theatre's "Oliver!" comes to boisterous life with memorable performances and a beautifully realized production.
It's a rousing rendition, no question.
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"Oliver!"★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace; (630) 530-0111 or drurylane.com.
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday, through June 2
Running time: About two hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $35-$49; $50-$74 lunch and dinner packages; senior and student discounts available
Parking: Free lot and pay valet service
Rating: Largely for general audiences, but does include violence
But Lionel Bart's famed 1960 stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1838 novel "Oliver Twist" comes off as an odd bird in this day and age.
The dark tone of Dickens' plot about an innocent workhouse orphan who falls under the influence of a gang of pickpockets and other London lowlifes often jarringly clashes with Bart's sunnily tuneful, high-stepping production numbers -- filled with cheery choristers. Contrast that with other 19th century-set musicals like "Sweeney Todd" or "Les Miserables," which approach their source material much more soberly and with less overt showbiz razzle dazzle.
It's also difficult to watch "Oliver!" in regards to the main heroine Nancy, wonderfully played by Heidi Kettenring as a brittle-surfaced, but soft-on-the-inside woman who ultimately has a moral core. Nancy's big torch song "As Long As He Needs Me" may be a standard, but it's uncomfortable in context since she's essentially forgiving the violent outbursts of her murderously abusive boyfriend, Bill Sykes (John Gawlik, who only plays the tough guy instead of naturally inhabiting the part).
The title role is also difficult to pull off, since Oliver is essentially a bland cipher surrounded by much more colorful characters like The Artful Dodger (a cocky turn by J.D. Rodriguez). Brady Tutton as Oliver sings angelically in numbers like "Where is Love?" and "Who Will Buy?," but he appears more capable and street-wise than his character should be -- perhaps because so many of Tutton's fellow orphans and pickpockets are adorably smaller and more lively than he's allowed to be.
Still, Drury Lane's "Oliver!" teems with talented acting turns. Early on, the flirting and sparring between the pompous Mr. Bumble of Michael Aaron Lindner and the acidic Widow Corney of Catherine Smitko is deliciously funny, while the undertaker family of the Sowerberrys are played with morbid sternness by Benjamin Magnuson and Catherine Lord.
As the aging pickpocket ringleader Fagin, John Reeger thankfully downplays the stereotypical Yiddishisms that other actors have brought to the role. Instead, Reeger presents Fagin as a much more methodical and inquisitive schemer who weighs his options in the great sung monologue "Reviewing the Situation."
Where Fagin's Jewish influence holds sway is seen in Rockwell's choreography for his gang of pickpockets, which includes some great Eastern European trepak moves. Rockwell works wonders with the kids' ensemble, many of whom also have good comic timing on top of the undeniable cuteness factor.
Kevin Depinet's set design is wonderfully evocative of London's South Bank, lit with the appropriate amount of shady gloom by lighting designer Greg Hofmann. Theresa Ham's colorful period costumes also help in delineating the classes of all the Dickens characters.
If you only know "Oliver!" from the 1968 Academy Award-winning Best Picture, it's fun to compare and contrast the film to the stage show that inspired it. And Drury Lane does "Oliver!" proud, even if the show itself -- with its episodic nature and wildly shifting tones -- becomes something of a stylistic whiplash.