Enrollment is booming at Fagin's school for pint-size pickpockets. A whopping 31 boys and girls scramble about the premises as Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities stages "Oliver!" They're part of a cast of 55, accompanied by an orchestra of 17. Big, big, big -- that's the hallmark of this production, which impresses through sheer force of will even if its artistry is scattershot.
Straight away, director-choreographer Jon Engstrom deploys the kids well by using their number to emphasize the conditions chronicled by Charles Dickens in his late-1830s serialized story "Oliver Twist," the basis for Lionel Bart's 1960 musical. The line seems never to end as orphans -- dirt-smeared, clothes in tatters -- trudge to their seats in a workhouse dining hall.
When Oliver works up the gumption to say, "Please, sir, I want some more," he is sold to an undertaker, then runs off and gets absorbed into Fagin's band.
Comic relief is provided early on when Stephen Reynolds, playing the parish beadle, affects the speech of a fine gentleman, extravagantly rolling his Rs, and Monica Smith, as the workhouse mistress, reacts to his amorous advances with equally extravagant giggles.
Outfitted with scraggly hair and beard, Stephen Breithaupt is a satisfyingly complex Fagin. Though gruff at times, he bestows hugs of praise on his apprentice pickpockets and makes sure they're all tucked in at night. As Oliver, 11-year-old Quintan Craig sings in a heavenly boy's soprano and smiles cherubically. That's about the extent of his character development though. Where is our young hero's spunk? He could stand to learn a bit more from Caden Michael Gray's raffish Artful Dodger.
Musically, the show benefits from having Misty Cotton on hand to pour her chocolaty voice all over the doomed Nancy's big torch song, "As Long as He Needs Me." The score -- which also includes "Where Is Love?," "Consider Yourself" and "Who Will Buy?" -- sounds glorious as supervised by Steven Smith.
Engstrom emphasizes the show's charms, as when he fashions the kids into a team of prancing horses and a carriage with spinning-umbrella wheels so that the pickpockets can playact at society life in "I'd Do Anything." The story presents formidable challenges, however. Social conditions doom these children to the workhouse, thievery and worse, and the bad guy -- played with towering menace by Robert Clink -- brutally murders a favorite character onstage. A tacked-on, happy holidays coda -- complete with surprise special effect -- sends the audience out the door smiling but conflicted.
Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 17
Price: $37.50 to $52.50
Contact: (310) 372-4477 or www.civiclightopera.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes