The question when reviving a classic musical is always how much to preserve and how much to adapt. Audiences can often have fond memories of famous original productions, but times change, and directors, designers, and actors want to put their own spin on a work or what’s the point? Kensington Arts Theatre’s production of Oliver! is a case in point. Lionel Bart’s 1960 smash musical adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist boasts many beloved old tunes, such as “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Where Is Love” and “As Long As He Needs Me.” It is chock full of adorable urchins, nasty villains, buxom wenches and lovable rogues. It has been a winning formula through many revivals. Should one try to recreate it, or update it?
The KAT production goes for a bit of both. The first impressions promise something new: on entering the theater, one sees a stage with bare platforms and brick walls, but in between is a large screen with projections of brass and iron cogs and gears – this is a Steampunk Oliver! It works well in this case, freeing the production from the constraints of any particular historical period, while imbuing it with both the sense of romance and adventure inherent in Steampunk (think mad scientists, genius inventors, intrepid explorers), with a hint of the oppressive atmosphere of the industrial revolution. The projections allow scenes to be changed easily, with backdrops sometimes symbolic, sometimes specific.
The conceit works especially well for Justine Crimans’ costume design, liberating her from yet another collection of ragged orphans, women in pseudo-Victorian long skirts and shawls and men in vaguely period coats. The Governors lording it over the orphans at the beginning are genuinely creepy in their short capes and dark glasses, many of the female characters look adventurous in leggings covered in gears and pistons, and the noble Mr. Brownlow (Jack Mayo) is quite dashing in his one-shoulder pinstriped cape. One wonders how much of the costume budget must have gone to brass goggles, but they are de rigeur, and warm the heart of a true Steampunk fan. (The gears on faces in John Nunemaker’s makeup design might be a step too far – are they supposed to be cyborgs? But they blend in with the esthetic, so why not?)
Mr. Nunemaker’s direction keeps all the gears of the production engaged and turning at a good clip (although one wonders why so many of the cast exits involved marching up, over and down the platforms; they seem unnecessarily drawn out). The lighting, by Dan Patrick Leano, is effective, especially at the end of Act 1, when Music Director Paul Rossen could be seen looming in silhouette behind the projection screen. The slightly sinister tones of the overture under his able baton match well with the show’s industrial look, and it is very effective when the orphans first tramp in loudly from behind the audience. Unfortunately, during the first scene, the stomping and banging of steel bowls make it almost impossible to hear the words of “Food, Glorious Food”, and it even appeared that the singers couldn’t hear the orchestra at some points.
Dialect Coach Pauline Griller-Mitchell has done a masterful job of fine-tuning the characters’ accents, but her work would be more apparent if the diction were clearer, especially for the younger cast members, who are otherwise very fine.
Fight Choreographer Justine Crimans has her work cut out for her in this show, with all the chases and fights. The result lands somewhere between realistic and stylized; some of the actors seemed to be pulling their (pretend) punches, perhaps for fear of injuring their castmates. A combination of more engaged acting and louder slap sounds might help. Nancy Scales Harry’s dance choreography is lovely, and is shown to great advantage by her dancers, particularly Matthew August whose classical ballet experience is evident.
KAT is known for casting beautiful voices, and this production is true to form. Cody Yeatman has the clear, sweet boy soprano the title role demands. Meghan Williams Elkins’ operatic soprano is particularly suited to Mrs. Bumble (née Corney) in her comic “I Shall Scream” (although the song, in which a man insists a woman likes his amorous advances and she says no – she’ll scream for help – only to admit in the end she was just being coy, cannot quite be viewed as the cute joke it once was). On the other hand, the highly operatic voices among the street vendors in the non-comic number “Who Will Buy,” although gorgeous, seem slightly out of keeping with the style of the show. Matthew August and Lauren-Nicole Gabel bring a creepy elegance to the parts of the undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowerby, especially Ms. Gabel, whose soaring soprano enhances a part that is usually played as yet another Dickensian hag.
She show really kicks into high gear with the appearance of Cole Edelstein (who, although only a high school sophomore, is an Equity actor who has appeared on Broadway) as The Artful Dodger. His energy singing a rousing “Consider Yourself” while bounding a foot in the air with every step lifts the entire cast. Equally excellent is Brian Lyons-Burke as Fagin, who delivers his patter songs “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “Be Back Soon” and “Reviewing the Situation” with perfect precision and a full range of emotion. He makes a part that has sometimes descended into caricature into a well-rounded, sympathetic character.
And then we come to the two most problematic roles in the show: Bill Sikes and Nancy. Brian Douglash, as Sikes, throws himself with massive malevolence into his role. He is utterly, commandingly vile every second he is onstage. He evokes depths of emotion – terror – in his castmates not seen before. He delivers all his songs and lines in a shouted growl that is sometimes hard to decipher. Unfortunately, this personification of evil makes it impossible to understand how anyone could ever love him, let alone Nancy. Perhaps if he imbued parts of his big number “My Name” with a more seductive kind of evil, Nancy’s addiction to him might be easier to comprehend.
Ah, Nancy. Such spunk. Such charm. Such gorgeous, wonderful songs. Justine Summers brings a pure, strong, mezzo belt and appealing, brash persona to the role, enhanced by her pixie-cut hair and swashbuckling Steampunk costume. She seems the perfect picture of sass, someone who could hold her own easily on the mean streets of London. This makes it all the more bizarre why she could hold a torch for a brute like Sikes. It seems in her otherwise lovely delivery of “As Long As He Needs Me” that Ms. Summers can’t quite believe it herself. Perhaps she is trying to convey the feeling of being trapped, or perhaps the best actress in the world couldn’t reconcile this dissonance. At any rate, especially in her other songs, like “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything” and “Oom Pah Pah” she is a joy.
And here lies the problem in trying to update a classic like Oliver! Times have changed, particularly ideas of what women deserve. In 1960 it might have seemed noble for a woman to stick by her man no matter how he treats her – or beats her. But today it just seems bewildering and tragic. KAT’s Steampunk-themed production handles this by making clear it is fantasy, free of time and place, while leaving the most beloved elements – particularly the music – intact. It is effective and entertaining. Just leave the 21st century at the door.
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission.