Smile Politely

CUTC’s Oliver!: reviewing the situation

When my editor sent out the call for someone to review the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company’s Kathy Murphy Student Production of Oliver! at Parkland this month, I leapt at the opportunity. Few shows have left the permanent mark on my imagination that Oliver! did when I first encountered it as a child. Repeatedly watching the 1968 movie didn’t just give me a lifelong terror of Oliver Reed, who plays the ruthless housebreaker Bill Sikes in the film. (Yes, I know he’s dead now. That’s no reason to get complacent.) Oliver! also ignited my lifelong love of all things Victorian England and all things Dickensian, and, in so doing, gave me a permanent soft spot for the innately good orphan whose misadventures with cruel government officials and colorful criminals serve as the meat of Dickens’ story. I was excited to see what our local young talent could do with this rich material.

For those who don’t know, Oliver! tells the story of Oliver Twist, a workhouse orphan whose famous request for seconds — “Please, sir, I want some more” — quickly gets him banished from the workhouse and sold as a servant to a local undertaker. The cruelly treated Oliver makes a break for London, where he is taken under the wing of a flamboyantly dressed young man who introduces himself as the Artful Dodger and promises Oliver free lodgings with a “respectable old gentleman”. That “gentleman” is the infamous Fagin, the leader of a gang of pickpockets and thieves who quickly initiates Oliver into a life of crime. Fortunately, fate (in the form of some pretty big coincidences and a soft-hearted fallen woman named Nancy) intervenes to give Oliver hope for a different life before it’s too late.

While I was excited to see the show, I also had some reservations going in. Oliver! is a popular choice for getting kids involved in musical theater because it’s a show where kids naturally get to be an integral part of the action. The show calls for both a chorus of workhouse orphans and a gang of young singing, dancing pickpockets, as well as including some additional large kid-friendly ensemble numbers. However, the show does have its moments of darkness, and I especially wondered how sensitively a youth production would be able to handle the abusive relationship between Nancy and the violent burglar Bill Sikes.

I needn’t have worried. Director Jessica Elliott has clearly done a great job of working with her young cast to portray the show’s difficult themes with maturity and empathy. (See Rebecca Knaur’s preview of the show for information about the show’s partnership with Courage Connection.) The cast as a whole consistently deliver performances showing that they’re taking what’s being portrayed seriously and that they understand the deeper emotional resonance of the show’s plot.

This task is particularly important for the actress playing Nancy, and I was thrilled to discover such a talented performer in the role on Thursday night. Ruth Zielke, who played Nancy opening night (Madison Gardner will play the role on alternating nights, pictured left) is an extremely promising young actress whose youth actually suited the part far more than I would have expected. The glimpses of childish exuberance in Nancy’s light-hearted numbers with Fagin’s boys made the character’s ultimately tragic story arc all the more heartbreaking. Zielke’s mature rendition of the song “As Long As He Needs Me”, Nancy’s explanation of why she stays with an abuser, skillfully balanced emotional vulnerability with a stubborn determination and strength, keeping the character from seeming overly pathetic or passive despite her bad life choices. (It can be a fine line indeed when it comes to that song.) I see from Zielke’s bio in the program that she’s been in over 35 local shows and has had a number of large roles lately. I’m not surprised, as she definitely did an impressive job here with an emotionally difficult part.

The other standout among the older cast members was Andrew Sullender, who has the potentially tricky task of playing Fagin, the show’s fatherly villain who tricks Oliver into a life of crime with his seeming promise of a welcoming home and loving family. Sullender immediately oozed the charisma and warmth necessary to make the audience, like Oliver, feel drawn in by him even as he gives us plenty of reason to doubt his good intentions: leading the gang in a rousing rendition of “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and encouraging Oliver to try his hand at the “game” of removing handkerchiefs from pockets without being caught. Throughout the show Sullender successfully portrayed Fagin as the villain whom you can’t quite bring yourself to hate, convincingly communicating his discomfort with Oliver’s plight and getting big audience laughs during Fagin’s song “Reviewing the Situation” as he methodically considers the other paths he could take in life and summarily dismisses them all.

While the older actors all turned in solid performances, one of the big draws of a production of Oliver! is the presence of a large chorus of adorable children, and the production delivers on this front as well. Opening night excitement was readily apparent during the first number, “Food Glorious Food”, as the workhouse orphans filing in seemed just a touch too delighted by the gruel on offer and exchanged many gleeful grins with each other as they sat down. The kids settled in to the performance quickly, though, and had clearly done the hard work necessary in rehearsal to put on a polished show for audiences. Only the most churlish of audience members could keep from smiling during the enthusiastic ensemble performance of “Consider Yourself” (led by Ethan Smith, a very dapper and charming Artful Dodger), the sweet and playful “I’d Do Anything,”, or the energetic “Be Back Soon.” The older and younger performers worked wonderfully as a team and were clearly very supportive of each other onstage.

Oliver himself is ably played by Gideon Johnson, who gives the character a mischievous spark that quickly endears him to the audience. The character of Oliver becomes a bit of a pawn for the adult characters to move around the board in Act II, which makes it all the more important that the audience be won over by him in the first act. Oliver’s biggest moment in Act I is the solo song “Where Is Love?”, and a confident Johnson nailed the song’s emotional content while proving that he has all the stage presence necessary for a lead.

My only complaints about the production have to do with the technical side of things and with the pacing of the climax of the show. Oliver! was unfortunately plagued by the same sound problems that have affected every musical I’ve seen at Parkland recently, and the mics seemed to be having particular problems picking up the children’s relatively soft voices. It’s rough enough to miss out on adult actors’ delivery of lines due to mic problems, but totally heartbreaking when a child actor reaches their big solo line in a song and it’s inaudible to the audience. The lighting was also often distractingly bright for the Victorian underworld, sometimes giving the appearance of Fagin having fluorescent lights on in his lair. I would have liked to have seen more of a contrast in lighting as Oliver moved in and out of the murky criminal underworld.

As for the climax of the show, it felt very rushed and a little difficult to follow, perhaps in part due to the sound issues that made it unclear what was being said at times. While one could definitely get the gist of what had occurred, certain characters came off looking rather cold-hearted due to the haste and apparent lack of emotion with which they departed from a tragic scene. I wondered if nerves were causing rushed line deliveries and speeding everything else up along with them, or if everything really was supposed to unfold so quickly.

Overall, however, Oliver! is a fun evening of theater featuring some impressive student talent and some extremely catchy tunes. (Including some that didn’t make the cut for the movie–I was very pleased by the inclusion of “That’s Your Funeral”, one of the more amusing songs about funeral planning you’re likely to hear. It’s been stuck in my head since Thursday night and I don’t mind a bit.) The combination of that great music with Dickens’ flair for a good story peopled by colorful characters makes Oliver! a great bet for musical theater fans as well as for anyone interested in supporting local young talent.

Oliver! continues its run at Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre Thursday-Saturday of this week with performances at 7:30 p.m. each night. On Sunday June 26th there will be a 2:30 matinee performance. Tickets are $14 for adults ($12 for senior citizens and students, $8 for children under 12) and can be purchased by calling 217-352-4085 or online.

All images by Sam Logan

Mara Bandy is an Arts Writer for Smile Politely. She once saw the very desk where Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and counts this as a highlight of her life so far. She still has occasional nightmares about Oliver Reed.


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