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"Oliver!" sets the standard at Capital Playhouse

The show represents a smart shift of programming for the Olympia theater company


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It seems to me that 1960's Oliver!, adapted and composed by Lionel Bart, set the very model for a modern Broadway musical. It has all the elements we associate with the form. Its protagonist is a scrappy orphan (cf. Annie, Gavroche in Les Misérables) who uses his first solo number to tell us what he wants out of life (cf. "Castle on a Cloud," "Somewhere That's Green" in Little Shop of Horrors). It's set in a raucous historical period (Les Mis, Chicago) so it resists looking dated. It features over half a dozen hummable songs, amoral comic relief characters, an odious villain and a mildly violent climax. We can thank Charles Dickens, author of the source novel Oliver Twist (1838), for some of that, and we should. It's often said Dickens taught filmmakers, and by extension contemporary Broadway, how to tell stories.

Coming off a smaller-scale, future-gen production, Next to Normal, the bombast of Oliver! represents a smart shift of programming for Capital Playhouse. We know what we want from a show like this, and thanks to director Colleen Powers and an obviously dedicated cast, we get almost all of it. The choreography is intricate and perfectly executed. The madrigal harmonies of "Who Will Buy?" come off beautifully. Sixth-grader Skyler Wyatt Zimmerman, last seen as, you guessed it, Gavroche, looks good in a newsboy cap. Bruce Haasl's set transforms quickly from a workhouse to a mansion to the heights of London Bridge.

As this story's version of the Thénardiers, Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, Robert Corl and Sara Flotree Beekman have fun seducing each other into an unpromising relationship. Real-life husband and wife, Harrison Fry and Carolyn Willems Van Dijk, draw clean distinctions between pairs of good and evil characters. Kristin Burch belts to the rafters as Nancy, the hooker with a heart of gold, and Jason Pead is an early Victorian Vader of pure, sneering evil as crime lord Bill Sikes.

As Dickens himself was well aware, the character Fagin has been considered problematic since the novel's debut. A grotesque "kidsman" who recruits orphans into a nest of petty thieves, he's referred to dismissively as "the Jew" some 257 times in the book. In later editions, Dickens excised over 180 references, insisting, "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one." He further apologized decades later by writing noble Jewish characters into Our Mutual Friend. Lionel Bart, however, was himself Jewish, and his musical version wisely removes all such references. Patrick Wigren adds a Keith Richards swagger to Fagin's smarmy iniquity; he's very good in the role.

Kate Hayes steals every scene she's in as the Artful Dodger and has a clear singing voice to boot - frequent costume/microphone clashes notwithstanding. And hey, what's not to love about a show that opens with a hymn to "Food, Glorious Food?"


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