Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: (Ottawa) Oliver!

Oliver! (photo: Andrée Lanthier)

Ottawa Oom-Pa-Pa
Oliver! gets full marks
by Jim Murchison

Lionel Bart’s classic musical Oliver! opened On Friday at the NAC Theatre. Due to Christmas commitments I was afforded the opportunity to take in the Saturday matinee instead of opening night. This is one of those, it is what it is, plays. Most people already know the tale and indeed have seen it before. The play was already sold out before opening night.

...we have an obligation as well to look at child poverty as a national issue.

The ideas in the play however are not trivial. This is an adaptation of Charles DickensOliver Twist, a story that had a profound influence on England's parochial structure and its evolution into the 20th century. Artistic director Peter Hinton’s opening remarks reflected this ideal, as he framed the important historical context of Dickens’ work. He made a special point of saying he was delighted that the piece was one that a family could see together. Fittingly he made a point of drawing our attention to the poverty that still exists today and the importance of charity to those that have little or nothing at this time when many have so much. More importantly he added we have an obligation as well to look at child poverty as a national issue. 

The set is Black wood and wrought iron. The stage is bleak and dark as if the coal dust spewed from the chimneys of 19th century London covered it. A simple staircase at the back centre of the set leads to who knows where, but it could easily be a gallows. Eo Sharp has designed a set and costumes that instantly informs you that you’re in the early days of the industrial revolution and not in the high rent district. Jock Munro's lighting once again completes every illusion, providing brightness in London marketplaces and dark corners for nefarious deeds to be committed. 

No one scene is overpowering. They’re all just exceptionally good.

Many theatre patrons avoid matinees, believing that actors have to hold something back for the prime time audience. It ain't necessarily so and not on this Saturday afternoon. The actors and musicians did a fine job, not missing a beat after the added drain of an opening night less than 24 hours before this performance.  This may seem like an odd compliment, but there were not a lot of standout scenes in this show. The reason for that is that Dayna Tekatch’s direction and choreography are so good and so evenly balanced that the story itself is centre stage. No one scene is overpowering. They’re all just exceptionally good. The same can be said of a cast that makes character development and mutual support the most important part of their performance. Of course to pull that sort of trick off you have to have an extremely talented cast with no weak links and you don’t always have that good fortune. This season, the NAC does. 

The musical direction contained that same balance and commitment to the advancement of the story. Allen Cole directs the voices of varying range and timber very well and they are all effective individually, but as a Chorus they are gorgeous. The encore alone is almost worth the price of admission. 

A good portion of this play involves the portrayal of children in a harsh world. How does a mature cast effectively portray children in an orphanage where no one is supposed to be older than 16? They dress in the same drab nightclothes and totally commit to playing children. Children in these horrible circumstances are old before their time anyway, so it is not a difficult jump for an audience to make.  
Although this is primarily an ensemble effort, let’s face it, there are 5 characters that everyone wants to hear about, and they deserve comment. Despite the fact that Oliver is played by a full grown man there are many references to his diminutive stature. He is often directed to be on a lower stair or sitting or squatting to appear as a smaller child. Creating the rest of the illusion is up to Thomas Olajide who, in playing the role projects the wide eyed wonder, fear and optimism of a child. He’s very good at it. His emotional interpretation of, “Where is Love?” makes you believe that he is a very small boy in a large mean world. 

Joey Tremblay as Fagin is a remarkable physical actor. He appears old and world weary and somehow never breaks character while performing some of the most fluid lithe choreography of the evening. He even takes some time to try to solicit new employees for his pickpocket franchise from the audience. Jennifer Waiser is the Artful Dodger. She plays him with absolute con man charm and a gentlemanly optimism that belies his larcenous intent. 

Julie Tamiko Manning as Nancy is a powerful woman that never got a break. The inequity of life circumstance, the daily abuse makes her hide who she really is but can’t kill her true spirit. At the end of the day, “She has Oliver’s back!” even if it kills her. Her song, “As Long as He Needs Me” will break your heart. Shawn Wright as Bill Sykes starts off as evil. As we get to know him better we realize he is really evil. In his final scene he is really, really evil. Well what else can I say? 

No musical would be complete without an Orchestra and Allen Cole on piano, accordion and percussion, Mike Tremblay on clarinets and flute and Beth Sturdevant on cello add rich warmth to the show and support the pace and timing beautifully. The play is being extended so if an opportunity comes up take advantage: A classic production of a classic play, by a classic company.  

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