On Theater: 'Oliver!' taken on with ambition at playhouse

Editor's note: This corrects the play's showtimes.

There are elements of the Huntington Beach Playhouse's revival of the musical "Oliver!" that could stand toe to toe with the best professional productions, which makes it easier to overlook the show's more pedestrian aspects.

This ambitious musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novel "Oliver Twist" hasn't been done locally in some time. (I'd say about 20 years since my son, now 37, played the teen bully Noah Claypole in the last local production at the Westminster Community Theater.)

The vast stage of the Huntington Beach Playhouse lends itself wonderfully to such a complicated undertaking, with Andrew Otero's imposing London Bridge setting providing an excellent backdrop for some intricate Cockney choreography.

Director-choreographer Larry Watts has amassed a huge cast which cavorts splendidly in such intricate ensemble numbers as "Consider Yourself" and the somewhat superfluous "Oom-Pah-Pah." A few of composer-lyricist Lionel Bart's musical numbers (such as "I Shall Scream") could well be excised without sacrificing production values.

"Oliver!" revolves around the title character, a young orphan shuttled from a workhouse to a funeral parlor to the streets and a gang of pickpockets. In this role, Austin Kelly is youthfully engaging with a fine, melodic voice, which draws particular applause on solo numbers such as "Where Is Love?"

The show-stealing assignment of Fagin is superbly delineated by Stefan Berglund – who, with his Marty Feldman eyes and bushy beard, is a ringer for Ron Moody's Fagin in the 1968 Oscar-winning movie version. Berglund employs a sly, surreptitious manner that adds some comedic charm to what is basically an evil character.

The powerful yet melodious voice of Adriana Sanchez, which has graced the last two January musicals at the playhouse, is luminously present once more in "Oliver!" As Nancy, sweetheart of the bullying Bill Sykes, Sanchez draws hearty applause for her all-too-few musical numbers, and this reaction goes through the roof after her poignant solo "As Long As He Needs Me."

As the fearsome Sykes, Brian McFadden has the stature and the booming voice, yet seldom appears to pose a genuinely murderous threat. Daniel Zimmerman kicks up his heels joyously as Oliver's peer mentor, the Artful Dodger, while Jeanean Naqvi is an upbeat treat as Nancy's companion, Bet.

Jessica Schlenz is splendid as the frisky Widow Corney, but Gavin Quan as her intended, Mr. Bumble, lacks depth and trades solely on bluster. John Roberts is a sophisticated presence as Oliver's benefactor, Mary Hall is riotous as the crotchety and greedy Mrs. Sowerberry and Mark Berglund (Fagin's offstage son) bulls his way through the part of Noah Claypole.

Mike Walker's musical direction keeps the show hopping, particularly through the lengthy transition sequences. Lighting designs by Jon Hyrkas and sound effects from Dan Baird also contribute, though the key gunshot in the second act was missing on opening night.

Among novels turned into stage musicals, "Oliver!" may not be up to the level of "Les Miserables" or "The Phantom of the Opera," but it's a lusty, thoroughly enjoyable experience, ambitiously tackled and, on occasion, beautifully presented by the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "Oliver!"

Who: Huntington Beach Playhouse

Where: Library Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 30

Cost: $18 to $20

Information: (714) 375-0696, www.hbph.com/HBPH.com/Home.html

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World