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Highly Recommended! A Dickens of a Great Production

Highly Recommended!

Filling the Marriott Lincolnshire stage with the largest cast ever assembled at that venue, more than 35 talented triple-threats, from children to adults, entertain, amaze and bring down the house with an entertaining musical classic and a lesson about love. Nick Bowling’s much-welcome production of Lionel Bart’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist, is dark, often tragic but also filled with surprising moments of comedy and glorious music. Mr. Bowling, who’s one of Chicago’s premiere directors, has fashioned a true family-friendly production for the holidays that has so much more to offer than just a large cast.

The entire production looks and feels as if it’s been directly lifted from the pages of the novel that Dickens wrote in order to draw attention to Victorian Britain’s inequities between the classes. He especially sought to protest the Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. Jeffery D. Kmiec’s stunning stage setting, framed by iron filigree and and an assortment of period lanterns, magically transforms into Mr. Bumble’s austere workhouse, the Sowerberry’s gloomy funereal parlor, Fagin’s den of juvenile thieves, and the bridges, streets and alleyways of nineteenth century London. His artistry is enhanced by Jesse Klug’s exquisite lighting design, fused with flickering gaslights and shrouded shadows. Sally Dolembo has costumed her large cast with originality and a sharp eye toward the variance between rich and poor, but with a creative nod to the original Broadway production. She dresses Nancy in her traditional red dress, but has added her own textured touches. She’s adapted Fagin’s long, skirted surcoat into a far more practical, heavy winter coat—the better to keep the old man warm in his drafty digs.

Bowling’s entire cast is stellar, from the youngest workhouse boy to some of Chicago’s finest triple threats. Lucy Godinez, recently enjoyed in Marriott’s “Footloose,” is one of Chicago’s most gifted and radiant musical theatre talents around. Here she beautifully creates a multi-layered Nancy who’s both a fierce tigress who has a soft spot for the underdog. The abused lover of evil thug, Bill Sikes (played with stiff gruffness by Dan Waller), Ms. Godinez’s glorious, heartrending version of the show’s famous ballad, “As Long as He Needs Me,” illustrates her deep devotion to Sikes and a determination to make the best of her horrible life.

Earlier, we meet Nancy treating Fagin (the always reliable character actor, William Brown) and his boys to “It’s a Fine Life,” a delightful, tongue-in-cheek musical whimsy bemoaning Victorian poverty. After meeting the polite, well-turned young orphan, Oliver Twist, who’s taking refuge with Fagin and his young gang of thieves, Nancy and her gal pal Bet (Ziare Paul-Emile, demonstrating a strong vocal prowess) enchant with the infectious “I’d Do Anything.” Act II opens with Ms. Godinez’s rousing barroom ditty, “Oom Pah Pah,” full of swishing skirts and double entendres that are just this side of naughty. All-in-all Lucy Godinez’s Nancy is the raven-haired sweetheart around whom much of the play revolves.

The other standouts in this production are two young actors I’m hoping we’ll see much more of in the future. Eight-year-old boy soprano Kai Edgar is the tiniest, most extraordinarily talented young actor I’ve ever seen in the role of Oliver Twist (the role is also played by Kayden Kosheley, at select performances). This waif-like little boy is not only a gifted young singer and dancer, but he truly understands the craft of acting. Master Edgar is perfect in this role, but he’s matched by young Patrick Scott McDermott as a terrific Artful Dodger. This very likable, absolutely dynamic talent easily owns the stage in every scene. He’s introduced to the audience with his rousing anthem, “Consider Yourself.” Returning to the Marriott stage after appearing in “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and “Holiday Inn,” Master McDermott has the right look, size and demeanor to play opposite Edgar and the other boys. And did I mention that this young man can sing and dance like a young Gene Kelly? There’s a reason why he’s Fagin’s favorite little thief.

Other captivating performances are provided by a huge ensemble of gifted actor/singers, most of whom bring comedy to some truly despicable Dickens characters. Operatic tenor, Matthew R. Jones, is majestic as the pompous Beadle, Mr. Bumble; Bethany Thomas, fresh off her magnificent performance as The Witch, in Writer Theatre’s “Into the Woods,” as a sassy, stubborn Mrs. Corney; Jason Grimm, who wowed audiences in the Marriott’s production of “Murder for Two,” is creepy and cadaverous as Mr. Sowerberry; and Caron Buinis makes her welcome debut at this theatre as a headstrong, fawning Mrs. Sowerberry. Terry Hamilton, Mark David Kaplan and Cassie Slater nicely represent the upper class as Mr. Brownlow, Dr. Grimwig and Mrs. Bedwin. And Act II’s quartet of street vendors are gorgeously sung by ensemble members in the stirring, “Who Will Buy?” They include Emily Agy, as a lovely Rose Seller; Elizabeth Telford, earnestly hawking her wares as the Strawberry Seller; Kelly Felthous (also very funny as saucy, sausage-curled Charlotte Sowerberry) is a beautiful-sung Milkmaid; and buried beneath a bushy bear, Max De Togne lends his rich baritone to the Knifegrinder.

The show is sharp, sung with gusto and creatively choreographed by recent Jeff Award-winner, Brenda Didier. It’s filled with color, humor, drama and Lionel Bart’s lovely score, sung by a company of accomplished singers (thanks to talented Ryan T. Nelson’s musical direction).The show is accompanied by Patti Garwood’s full-sounding musical ensemble, hidden away inside the orchestra pit. This family musical is one Dickens of a great production. It’s an especially nice change for the holidays, after so many Chicagoland productions of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” But it’s a musical that will stay with theatergoers while it welcomes everyone to “consider themselves at home.”