It's tough to go wrong with “Oliver” at the holidays. You've got tousle-haired urchins, pathos, Fagin, melodrama and power ballads — orchestrated with a whiff of the sounds of Dusty Springfield's Swingin' London — and a concluding singalong that features the toe-tapping ditty “Consider Yourself,” a Lionel Bart tune so catchy, you'll be singing it while your Christmas goose gets cooked. “Food, Glorious Food” indeed. No show makes one hungrier.
And if that Dickensian kind of stuff does it for you and yours this festive season, you and yours will perhaps be fine at Light Opera Works, if you are not asking for more. Those great Bart tunes are accompanied by the original 26-piece orchestrations, and the aforementioned ballads (most notably “As Long as He Needs Me”) are belted admirably by Colette Todd — a full-throated star of this company, even if one kept wishing she would stand still and sing instead of constantly wander back and forth (mostly back) on a variety of indistinct platforms that added little to the experience beyond distraction.
All in all — and I regret the lump of coal in a review published on Christmas Eve — this “Oliver” was, for me, something of a disappointment at Saturday's opening night. That feeling was more acute because 2012 has been an excellent season for Light Opera Works in Evanston: Rudy Hogenmiller's “Man of La Mancha” this summer was a gorgeously crafted production featuring one of the best performances of the year from James Harms, who, while always a consummate pro, is not as well-cast as Fagin, the famously grandfatherly picker of pockets. The quality of the musical direction in “Oliver,” where singers and players frequently were not together, does not compare to the exquisite “La Mancha” experience. That wasn't the only nagging problem Saturday night: Cary Lovett, who plays Mr. Bumble, was still bumbling through his lines, which means he had little time for the requisite menace.
“Oliver,” of course, is a difficult piece that requires a lot of young people — and, certainly, the emotionally rich Michael Semanic is very poignant in the lead role of Master Twist, and Darren Barrere is a sparky Artful Dodger. But the key to the showcase kid numbers is to let the kids be kids, in the organic sense: Here, they seem to have been handed a wide variety of gestures and movements that they simply don't own; it feels artificial in the extreme. The choreography, by Christopher Carter, doesn't feel like it really exists. I suspect resources for dancers were limited. Nonetheless, one needs more coherent ideas than are in evidence here.
With this show, you also need ideas on how to handle the tricky, victimlike lyrics of Nancy's “As Long as He Needs Me,” which many people despise for the way it seems to suggest that battered women should stay right in harm's way. There are ways to contextualize this song so it does not feel so egregious, but, in this production, no viable solution is found. On a deeper level, this “Oliver” also lacks one of its most fundamental elements: contrast.
Instead of showing us the difference between the haves and the have-nots, honoring Charles Dickens' legacy, the world of this production feels like everything has landed in the same lumpy soup. During the curtain call, the elements of several different scenes flew in at once, which seemed to sum up the problem.
Through Dec. 31 at Light Opera Works, Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston; running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes; tickets: $32-$92 (21 and under are half price) at 847-920-5360 or lightoperaworks.com