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OLIVER doesn’t get standing “O” at Porthouse

“Oliver” doesn’t get  “standing O” at Porthouse

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

I had one of my greatest experiences in the theatre when, on June 30, 1960, I attended the opening of “Oliver!” at the New Theatre in London, England.  I was seated 3rd row center!

Peter Coe’s direction, Malcolm Clare’s choreography, and a cast consisting of Ron Moody (Fagin) Georgia Brown (Nancy) and Davy Jones (Artful Dodger) brought Lionel Bart’s music, lyrics and book to life.  Based on Charles Dickens tale of Oliver Twist, a tale of a child left at a London orphanage, the premiere got seventeen screaming standing ovations.  The show ran for close to 3000 performances and was transferred to Broadway where it had another successful run.  Interestingly, the Big Apple production featured sets built in London, shipped to the US by sea, complete with the actual brick wall London mural that I had seen in the British edition.

On the surface, “Oliver!” is the musical adaptation of the Dickens tale of a boy whose mother died in childbirth, was brought up in an orphanage, is sold to be an undertaker’s casket follower after he has the nerve to ask for more food.  He runs away from his employer, hooks up with a gang of boys who are trained to be pickpockets by Fagin, their elderly mentor, is caught by the police, befriended by a wealthy man who turns out to be his grandfather, and lives happily ever after.

In reality, as were many of Dicken’s stories, the tale was written as an attack on the English social welfare system of the day.  It is credited with having been the catalyst for the change of the orphanage houses of horrors.

Bart’s memorable score includes:  “Food, Glorious Food,” in which the mistreatment of the orphans is revealed;” “Oliver,” which introduces the audience to adorable scamp who won’t follow directions, and during its reprise later in the play reveals that Oliver will be loved and cared for; “Boy for Sale,” when Oliver is sold to a funeral director; “Where Is Love,” in which Oliver pleads for someone to show him some compassion; “Pick A Pocket or Two,” where Fagin teaches Oliver the skills of stealing; “My Name” introduces the fierce Bill Sykes, whose existence will have a profound effect on Oliver;  and “Reviewing the Situation,” in which Fagin evaluates his life and the aging process.

Audiences at Porthouse Theatre are generous in their ovations.  They tend to stand and enthusiastically applaud at the conclusions of all the shows, well-earned, or not.  This season, “My Fair Lady” got a deserved ovation and “Starmights” (undeserved) also was met with standing bodies.  Meanwhile, “Oliver,” the theatre’s latest offering, concluded with very few standees the night I saw the show.

Why did “Oliver!” get a less than triumphant reception?  The reasons are numerous.  Among them was that, as a whole, the show’s pacing lacked the emotional power needed to sustain both the oppression and glee the tale requires.  This may have been caused by the script being haphazardly adapted.  The usual two and a half hour show was cut to less than two hours.  Some of the adjustments caused awkward bridging of scenes, breaking the story’s flow.

There were some questionable casting choices.  Though he has an impressive singing voice, Brian Keith Johnson’s beautiful tones did not fit the menacing sounds needed to create the evil Bill Sykes, nor did his smooth, underplayed oral spoken delivery.  Though she put out full effort, Cameron Nelson was too old and lacked the charisma and “cutesy” aura to portray Oliver.  Miriam Henkel-Moellmann has a marvelous singing voice, and her “As Long as He Needs Me,” was well sung, but she was both too young and was too orally and physically scrubbed clean to portray the warm-hearted prostitute, Nancy.  Patrick Kennedy, dressed in a costume that made him look like an oversized elder man, had some of the right qualities for Dodger, including a nice singing voice, but failed to add the delightful nature of the kid thief.

On the positive side, Eric van Baars created an acceptable Fagin, though I would have preferred a little more eye-twinkling scheming and playfulness.  Lissy Gulick was delightful as Widow Corney.  MaryAnn Black’s choreography was well conceived, but many of the youngsters were just not comfortable enough to carry it off, often looking like puppets, rather than real live boys.  Nolan C. O’Dell’s multi-level stage set, with a small turntable to make for easy set moves worked moderately well.  Jonathan Swoboda’s well-tuned orchestra nicely supported the singers, rather than drowning them out.  “Oom-Pah-Pah” was a nicely conceived production number which added much needed joy.  “I Shall Scream” also added a nice comic dimension.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Oliver!” is a wonderful musical theatre script which tells a well conceived tale, has marvelous music, and, in a good production, pleases an audience.  Unfortunately, Porthouse’s version left much to be desired.


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