‘Oliver!’ at Compass Rose Studio Theater by Amanda Gunther

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Compass Rose Studio Theater’s inaugural season ends with a fabulous and intimate production of the musical Oliver! The classic musical tale of the orphan boy who wanted more is presented in all its finery with some minor adjustments made by Director Lucinda Merry-Browne. These slight tweaks give the show an intimate feeling, bringing the audience into the world of 1850 London. Merry-Browne has not cut any musical numbers or dialogue from the production but she dropped the Mr. Sowerberry character, making Mrs. Sowerberry a widow. This creates for a passionate and comic duo between Charlotte (Hannah Scholl) and Mrs. Sowerberry (Sarah Wade) for the number “That’s Your Funeral.” Merry-Browne also slashes the number of orphans appearing on stage, reducing it to just seven and that includes the Artful Dodger and Oliver. This unique decision works to the productions advantage in several ways. The show is tighter and moves more quickly, allowing for a well-paced exciting production to easily unfold without too many little bodies clogging up the stage. It also brings a sense of personal intimacy to those we do see on stage, easily focusing on the smaller number letting more of these talented youngsters showcase their voices.

The Orphans: Aubrey Heyl, Natalya Jimenez, Donovan Heyl, Sarah Grace Clifton, Tad Clifton, and Steven Scholl. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The orphan ensemble (Natalya Jimenez, Aubrey Heyl, Donovan Heyl, Stephen Scholl, and Tad Clifton) is a talented group of five young ladies and gentleman with powerful voices seemingly impossible from such tiny bodies. When singing “Food, Glorious Food,” the orphan ensemble can be heard crystal clear, their dreamy voices articulating precisely what their stomach’s desire. They shine again in “Pick A Pocket Or Two” with Fagin and with Nancy in “It’s A Fine Life” Natalya Jimenez being heard above the rest in both scenes with a boisterous strong sound. They’re clad in filthy tattered rags, compliments of costume designers Julie Bays and Meaghan O’Beirne, making their scrawny figures look that much more impoverished and starved.

Director Lucinda Merry-Brown provides excellent guidance in coaxing the subtle nuances of these easily recognizable characters out of her actors to create new characters within the framework of the old ones. This is a rare delicacy in the theatre – to be able to see the same character played in a completely new light. Mr. Bumble (Thomas Hessenauer) is the prime example of taking this character in a new direction. While Hessenauer starts off with Bumble as an angry bellowing fool, we later see a much softer side of the man. A humble Bumble when he sits in the chair reflecting upon the work for his parishioners, a reproachful Bumble when reflecting upon his recent marriage, and a giddy flirtatious Bumble during his duet “I Shall Scream” with Widow Corney (Michelle Hill.)

Dan Siefring (Fagin) and Sarah Grace Clifton (Oliver). Photo by Stan Barouh

A similar approach is used with the character of Fagin (Daniel Siefring). The natural progression of Fagin’s character has always been presented as a kindly old man with a slightly darker side than most, delving into something darker and then repenting. Siefring starts Fagin with a gruff nasty approach, making him bristly and making Oliver’s introduction very uncomfortable. Siefring manages to turn Fagin into a sleazy grotesque fellow that makes your skin quiver, his anger almost on par for what one might expect from the character of Bill Sykes. But when he sings his number “Reviewing The Situation” his puzzlement is more than apparent. He keeps an excellent pace with the many tempo changes in this number and creates a comic build with his pensive looks that evolve into hysterical madness.

Oliver (Sarah Grace Clifton) completes many of the scenes with a spunky attitude, especially when attempting to fight for his mother’s honor with Charlotte. Clifton appears as the spitting image of the scrawny underfed orphan, and has the voice of a mournful songbird when singing “Where Is Love” and joining the ensemble in “Who Will Buy?” Clifton sings and dances an adorable duet with Bet (Sarah Wade) during “I’d Do Anything” and this is matched by Nancy (Molly Densmore) and The Artful Dodger (Corey Buller.)

This pair of performers adds a little zest to the musical, Densmore in her vociferous manner with loud belted numbers like “Oom-Pah-Pah” and her more harrowing number, “As Long As He Needs Me,” a tear-jerking moving ballad of devotion to her abusive husband Bill Sykes (Andre Softeland.) Buller on the other hand provides sly comical relief as the upstanding gentlemen with false airs, providing an amusing jaunt in “Consider Yourself,” working well with Clifton in this scene to incorporate the new orphan into Fagin’s ranks. And let’s not forget Softeland as the despicable Bill Sykes, storming the stage with a ferocious number “My Name” and scaring everyone in sight.

This powerful cast with exceptional direction provided by Merry-Browne will woo the audience into movements of sheer delight in the musical classic and if there is only one musical you see this spring season – it needs to be the Compass Rose Studio Theater’s production of Oliver!

Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.

Oliver! plays through June 3, 2012 at Compass Rose Studio Theatre, located in Eastport Shopping Center, at 1011 Bay Ridge Avenue in Annapolis, MD. For tickets please call the box office at (410) 980-6662 or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.