Cast combine with main man O'Brien in great show
Where: Founders Theatre
When: June 23 to July 7
Reviewed by: Gail Pittaway
What a great lot of right choices were made in the creation of the latest offering from Hamilton Operatic Society, both in the selection of this particular show as well as in the team who delivered such a high energy, compelling spectacle.
Of course it's fitting in 2012 to be remembering the birth one hundred years ago of the author Charles Dickens, whose story is of the horror of poverty and the plight of an orphan named Oliver Twist, born in but never belonging to the workhouse.
The musical Oliver reaches into the memory long after any performance, for the sheer vitality of the songs and lyrics, by Lionel Bart. It's always popular despite retaining the often dark and nasty aspects of the original story and the fact that several of the songs don't relate to the action.
The show has a large cast including several great roles for women, other than the usual feeble soprano romantic lead, and an even greater range of opportunities for children; here, according to the programme, two casts of forty, alternating nights. That's a lot of kids to manage both on stage and off.
Then there are all the roles for cockneys, toffs and middle class merchants to fit onstage. Blimey. Yet director David Sidwell gives outstandingly strong direction, bringing together the competing forces of dancers, singers, troops of children and orchestra well in a fast-paced blast right from the opening number: ‘Food, glorious food'.
There are great cameo moments: Mr Bumble and Widow Corney (David Artis and Fiona Bradley); the undertaker family, the Sowerberrys (Tim Pollock and Lisa Wiles); Bill Sykes (Nicholas Wilkinson) and of course Nancy's great belter of a number, ‘As long as he needs me', delivered with appropriate passion by Kelly Donaldson.
Liam McGuire as Oliver is exquisitely other-worldly, while Luke Brooker's Artful Dodger gives a lively play of song, dance and timing. Then there are the very tiny nippers, so cute even in rags and even a completely unmoved English bull terrier to play Sykes' dog, Bullseye.
But despite all the distractions the true star of the show is always Fagin and here the choice of Richard O'Brien is perfect. He's a fey Fagin, light on his feet as well as with his fingers; one of those weak-seeming insidious villains, who'll always survive. Seeing him work with the gang of pick pockets is pure entertainment. O'Brien's voice is a joy to listen to and he gives the cast a wash of rock glamour while they in turn don't let him down.
Sidwell is joined in the creative team by designers and technicians but in particular the music and dance must be mentioned. Musical director Victoria Brown leads a small band to deliver the range of songs and orchestral pieces from ale house numbers and children's songs to Nancy's torch song and Fagin's klezmer-styled ‘Reviewing the situation' as well as a wide dynamic range. This core role is tight and tidy, giving a lead to most of the action and mood of the whole show.
The choreography of this production by Sonja McGurr Garrett is particularly imaginative, right from the tightly-drilled and repressed workhouse children to the raunchy oom pah pah racket of the public house.
The costumes, for so many people and several of them with several changes, are excellent and must have been a huge labour for the behind the scenes crew. The set, some of which is apparently borrowed from Invercargill, is also very effective in giving layers for action and the sense of the rickety decay of the workhouse, Fagins' workshop and as a back drop for the gothic funeral parlor scene. Other scene shifts are managed with well designed lighting and small drops and flies while capped maids move properties around appropriately. The whole performance is seamless, an absolute assault on the senses and the joy of those performing it is contagious.