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Marriott production shines welcome light on darker side of 'Oliver!'


Even before "Oliver!" begins at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, it's clear that Jeff Award-winning director Nick Bowling is out to shake things up.

Bowling and set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec simultaneously start the show with a well-appointed dining room with a luxuriously set table upstairs and the bowels of a grimy workhouse kitchen downstairs. So as a line of malnourished orphans sing about "Food, Glorious Food," we see the fat and privileged administrators who run and profit from the workhouse chomping down on a feast.

Bowling's emphasis on the extreme income inequities of Victorian Britain is a welcome beacon back to the social-reforming drive of Charles Dickens' serialized 1830s novel "Oliver Twist." It's an oft-retold tale of brave orphan Oliver Twist, who falls under the thrall of a pickpocket gang and other London "lowlifes" before fate reunites him with wealthy relatives.

But Lionel Bart's 1960 musical adaptation often defangs the novel's harsh realities with scrubbed-up and sunnily optimistic songs. Thus, it can be tough for Bowling to fully re-envision "Oliver!" -- especially with Bart's tonally clashing material that features both knees-up production numbers like "Who Will Buy?" or "I'd Do Anything" and scenes of class conflict or brutal violence.

This uneasy dynamic is seen in the initial meeting of Oliver (Kai Edgar and Kayden Koshelev alternate in the role) and the expert pickpocket known as The Artful Dodger (Patrick Scott McDermott and Nolan Maddox alternate in this role). Bowling resets the scene in a public park filled with well-to-do picnickers wearing their Sunday best. Rather than being repelled by these scraggly ragamuffins, the adult chorus joins in to welcome and embrace them in the cheery production number "Consider Yourself."

This misstep aside, it's otherwise fun to watch Bowling's more successful spins at returning the grittiness to "Oliver!" This includes adding a bare-knuckles fighting match to the Act II opener "Oom-Pah-Pah."

Bowling also collaborates with costume designer Sally Dolembo to bring more depth to former gang members Nancy (Lucy Godinez, who has a powerful belting voice) and her younger sister, Bet (Ziare Paul-Emile), by strongly implying that they're of Roma heritage.

William Brown takes a low-key and thoughtfully naturalistic approach to the pickpocket den leader Fagin. Brown's Fagin shows authority by implying that he personally groomed Bill Sykes (an angular and angry Dan Walker), who grew into the ruthless and violent villain that he is today.

Because of this, I personally would have preferred Brown to allow more sinister menace to erupt from his Fagin. Yet I am grateful that he sensitively downplays some of the more stereotypical Yiddishisms that were emphasized by actors from previous generations in the role.

Bowling has assembled a great and diverse cast with many vocal powerhouses to enliven the supporting roles. Matthew R. Jones' operatic tenor is impressive as the pompous Mr. Bumble in the song "Boy for Sale," while the growling and commanding Mrs. Corney of Bethany Thomas wows in the shortened "I Shall Scream."

Also wonderful at comically sparring are Jason Grimm and Caron Buinis as exploitative undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, who plan to employ Oliver as a processional mourner for child funerals.

The Marriott Theatre's revival of "Oliver!" arrives as a Charles Dickens holiday alternative to the upcoming onslaught of "A Christmas Carol" stage adaptations. And it assuredly delivers both rousing production numbers staged by Brenda Didier and a cadre of very cute child performers.

Bowling's "Oliver!" impresses with his attempts to re-emphasize the darker aspects of Dickens' original novel -- even if that sometimes clashes with Bart's catchy music and tonally jarring script.