May 20, 2010 at 5:19 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
Seeking love in all the wrong places

“Food, glorious food!”

So sing the starving pauper children and orphaned young Oliver Twist at the opening of this enduring musical treat, “Oliver,” in a rousing number that sets the stage in this Capitol Hill rendition of a feast of musical theater by the St. Marks Players.

But only two more performances remain since it closes on Saturday, May 22. So seize the time and get thee to St. Mark’s Church and see this familiar Charles Dickens tale come alive on the wide stage in the long nave of St. Marks Episcopal Church, home to some of the D.C. area’s consistently best community theater for the past 27 years.

“Show, glorious show!” could headline this review — the show is quite simply that good. Based on the songs and story by Lionel Bart, the St. Marks production benefits from dynamic musical direction by J. N. Wickert III and well-executed choreography by Debbie Clark, all under the directorial leadership of the two-decades St. Marks Players’ veteran Kevin Sockwell, whose years of experience show in this seamlessly executed classic.

The original “Oliver” was first staged in London in 1960 and next on Broadway in 1963 and then translated memorably to the screen in 1968 where it won the Best Picture and a raft of other Oscars that year. It is based, of course, on Dickens’ novel, set around 1850 and written to humanize the plight of the London poor.

“‘Oliver’ is a kind of conversation with the ‘Other,'” says the show’s openly gay producer, Jerry M. Dale, Jr., also president of the St. Mark’s Players. “The ‘Other’ can be someone who has an opinion the polar opposite of yours,” and for Dale the “Other-ness” of “Oliver” is in part its period setting — the sinister and threadbare life of children in an era in which only about one in five received any education at all.

Instead, most mid-Victorian English children got their real-world education very young in sweatshop factories and punitive workhouses. Often their only escape from this pathway to nowhere was a life of urban crime.

So Oliver and his unwashed group of fellow outcasts seek out love in all the wrong places as Oliver asks the central question of each of our own lives, “Where is Love?” And it is the strength of that love that keeps Oliver pure amid the likes of Fagin and his gang of criminal riff-raff, the worst of London’s proletariat underworld. But that evil is also typified with a light-fingered touch by the antic spirit of the Artful Dodger.

“Where is love?” — director Sockwell puts this question directly — “Where do we find the elusive feeling that we crave … from something determined by physical attraction and body sensations to something deeper and indefinable?” That is the heartbeat that draws us to the deeper meaning of “Oliver,” and the reason the show is so rightly housed within the sacred yet very dramatic space of this red-brick Victorian Gothic venue at 3rd and A streets, S.E.

“Acting, glorious acting!” — and first-rate singing and dancing — is the medium here for Dickens’ message. First, there is the almost tragic figure of Fagin, portrayed with visible heartache as well as slyly avuncular knavery by the simply brilliant Walter Smith, whose great song, “Reviewing the Situation,” ends the show on an almost plaintive note.

Second, there is the comic relief of the Artful Dodger, all double-jointed animation and all a blur of hands and feet and swivel hips during the great song of welcome to Oliver, “Consider Yourself (part of the family).” Patrick Jordan mugs his way through this choice role with comic elan and dances his way with total amoral glee into the audience’s rightful favorite.

In fact, one in the audience, seven-year-old Ian Patzman-Rivard, said the acting was especially good in this show. Fresh off his own role in St. Peter’s Interparish School production of “Mulan,” Ian said he would “would like to play the Artful Dodger, because he’s the leader of the pickpockets and he makes bad look good, and that’s really good acting.”

Finally, there is Oliver himself, played by young Rudy Schreiber, Jr., “happy to be joining the cast,” he says, in his “dream role,” Rudy captivates as Oliver, showing the boy’s tender side as well as his effort to bluff his way as tough enough to survive in the Darwinian world of Fagin’s gang of pickpockets and the truly wicked Bill Sykes.

‘Oliver’ (closes May 22, 8 p.m.)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
3rd and A streets, S.E.
For tickets call 202-546-9670

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