Through Aug. 16
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda
Often you’ll hear people say “Oliver!” was their introduction to musical theater. And it’s no wonder. Over the years, Lionel Bart’s 1960 family-friendly musical based on Charles Dickens’ classic “Oliver Twist” has enjoyed hit runs in London and New York. There have been professional tours and remounts, and high school and community productions of all kinds. And then there’s the hugely successful Oscar-winning film version that opened in 1968 and remains popular today.
In keeping with tradition, Adventure Theatre MTC is now introducing “Oliver!” to a new generation of theatergoers.
Adventure is best known for its one-act musicals for kids performed in a cozy Glen Echo Park venue. But now the company is branching out. In tackling “Oliver!,” Adventure is staging its first two-act musical with a production that appeals to all ages and boasts a four-piece band and a 28-person cast that includes known local talents Rick Hammerly and Felicia Curry. To accommodate the ambitious project, Adventure has borrowed Round House Theatre Bethesda’s much larger and more technically equipped space. The results are beyond admirable.
First off, the production looks terrific. Director Joseph Ritsch along with designers Douglas Clarke (set), Martha Mountain (lighting) and Julie Potter (costumes) have incorporated elements of trendy steam punk and Goth aesthetics (top hats, leather corsets, metal goggles and Victorian birdcages) in vividly creating gloomy early industrial London. Sarah Tundermann effectively adds to the mid-19th century atmosphere with projections of moving fog, architectural references and a sliver of the Thames.
It’s the perfect setting for the tale of a gentle yet plucky waif who bounces from orphanage to mortuary to thieves’ den all the while searching for a bit of security and love.
While the show gets off to a slow start with a stolid workhouse dance number, things pick up when Oliver (Franco Cabanas) is sold to a family of nasty undertakers. Here, surrounded by coffins, he sings “Where is Love?,” a touching tune in which he expresses longing for the mother he’s never known. Adventure struck gold when they found Cabanas. He acts and sings beautifully and bears a strong resemblance to the angelic-looking young actor Mark Lester who memorably played the title role in the film.
But it’s when Oliver lands among a gang of underage thieves that the show hits its stride. This is due to an overall energy infusion as well as out actor Rick Hammerly’s finely nuanced portrayal of Fagin, the gang’s scraggly-haired leader. Clad in a ratty dressing gown, Hammerly’s Fagin is a friend to the young delinquents whom he addresses as “my dears” and offers sips of gins when not instructing them on the art of crime (a delightfully delivered “Pick a Pocket or Two”). However, secretly ogling his hoard of stolen gems is Fagin’s greatest pleasure.
The energy ups even further when Felicia Curry swaggers on stage as Nancy, a dance hall girl whose tough strut belies a heart of gold. Currie gives a powerhouse rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me” in which she refers to her black-hearted boyfriend Bill Sykes (an intimidating Greg Twomey) and later, in reprise, to little Oliver.
“Oliver!” is not without its darker moments. And perhaps it’s precisely these bits that so engage kids. The audience at a recent performance was made up of elementary school-age children and attendant adults. Both young and old were rapt. Except for that fidgety woman seated near me who frequently reassured her daughter that what takes place on stage is not real. The little girl ignored mama’s fussing and thoroughly enjoyed the show, scary parts and all.