Trying to explain vagabond orphans clad in rags to an eight-year-old in 2016 isn’t easy. There’s no X-box game that depicts life in an orphanage and thankfully, the fear of surviving on porridge alone is not a problem my second grader has to consider. So when we took our seat at the Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) performance of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!,” directed by Bruce Lumpkin, the colorful band of singing and dancing pickpockets successfully transported us to 18th-century gritty streets of London.
In this adaptation to Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist”, the scenes move fast and the Cockney-accented characters never stop singing. As the curtain rose, the orphans banged their dishes in rhythm and launched the show with “Food, Glorious Food.”
All the usual suspects were present, including the Artful Dodger, (Caleb Donahoe) Oliver, (Christopher Wolff’s) Bill Sykes, (Nathaniel Hackman) prostitute Nancy (Kathryn Porterfield) and the criminal boss Fagin. (James Leo Ryan)
Bart’s pop background shines through the numbers, including the comedic one with Widow Corney (Barbara Marineau) and Mr. Bumble’s (Brian Ray Norris) “I Shall Scream”; Nancy’s sad misplaced loyalty anthem to her abusive lover Bill, “If As Long As He Needs Me”; and her “Oom-Pah-Pah” Victorian pub song. The movable wooden bridge (designed by Dennis Hassen) and colorful rag costumes (Colleen Grady) pull the audience into the gritty Victorian gloom. While each song holds a specific reason, audience members can make their own personal connections, despite the centuries that have passed between us.
As Oliver’s fate was sealed as a professional child mourner when he is sold to Undertaker Sowerberry, (Dylan Godwin) we were spellbound by “That’s Your Funeral.” Later, the raw need for acceptance and basic love was revealed in Oliver’s song “Where Is Love?”
The now-married Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble discover the truth about the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (David Sitler) and Oliver’s birth mother. The production ends on a heartwarming note, making the important connection between love, family and home.
And the message rang through as my son leaned back in his theatre seat, “All of that happened just because Oliver asked for more food? Wow.”