The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Barry Pineo, May 11, 2001, Arts

Oliver!: More, Please

Paramount Theatre,

through May 20

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

It takes guts to put an exclamation point in the title of a show. It implies an excitement, an entertainment value that goes beyond the pedestrian, non-punctuated production. Something well worth seeing better be on the stage, and certainly there are some impressive things in this Austin Musical Theatre production. For those who perhaps have not been paying attention since the 19th century, this Charles Dickens story concerns the orphan Oliver Twist, who escapes from his workhouse existence and travels to London, where he falls into the friendliest den of thieves in Western literature -- with one exception. Hovering over the gang of boy pickpockets, fronted by their slimy but lovable leader Fagin, is the black image of Bill Sykes, whose name is intoned like a mantra and whose ever-threatening presence is both the bane and the inspiration of the youths in Fagin's gang.

Christopher McCollum's sets are things of beauty. Utilizing forced perspective and the drop-and-fly system of the Paramount Theatre, McCollum presents a dark, dank, dirty, dreary London, all stone and brick and fog, that towers like a living colossus inside the ornate proscenium arch. McCollum makes the difficult task of presenting such a lavish musical look oh-so-easy, with multiple sets dropping smoothly in and out and rolling slickly on and off. Particularly satisfying is the London Bridge of the climactic scene, seeming to appear out of thin air, so high in the night sky that a touch of vertigo accompanies its presentation. In their richness of detail, Dawn Allee's costumes match McCollum's sets: earthy in the workhouse but bright with swirls of color in the bustling city streets. So many types are represented -- bakers, florists, fruit sellers, magistrates, jugglers, music hall entertainers, young and old, rich and poor -- and move on and off the stage so quickly, I could only imagine an army of dressers working furiously throughout. Add to this Shannon M. M. January's atmospheric lighting, sometimes showering the stage with bright beams, sometimes darkly isolating the tiniest corners, and you have production values that reflect the grandest tradition of the American musical theatre.

In some instances, the cast that co-directors Scott Thompson and Richard Byron have assembled matches the design. Young Alex Rollins portrays Oliver with the wide-eyed innocence and irresistible pluck that the role requires and backs it up with a voice that is surprisingly strong coming from one so young. Most impressive is Peter Kevoian's Fagin, a prancing, mincing prig of an aged thief, bright and cheery one moment, flashing intense anger the next, but always sly, always charming, and without question entertaining. Much of the credit for the show's successes must go to the overwhelmingly large chorus. "Who Will Buy" is magical, sending chills up and down the spine, but almost as striking are "Food Glorious Food," "Pick a Pocket or Two," and "I'd Do Anything," all of which employ the massive chorus of local boys. If this is the kind of talent, energy, and enthusiasm coming from the Austin Musical Theatre Performing Arts Academy, Austin's musical future is bright indeed.

Could anyone ask for more? Well, yes, actually. Despite some fine performances, consistently lush and well-executed chorus numbers, and stunning sets and costumes, I left with an empty feeling. When I see an actor identified as an Equity professional, I expect professional quality from the performance, and there are two actors in this production who fall short of supplying that. Moreover, the night I attended, the number "Boy for Sale" was lip-synched so poorly, it ruined the most gorgeous song in the show. Most importantly, I'm all for spectacle, but when I go to the theatre -- or a film, or even watch television -- first and foremost, I want to see believable human beings interacting within their given set of circumstances. Oliver!, as much as any other piece of theatre, is meant to illuminate the human condition, to demonstrate our capacity for empathy, understanding, giving, and love. I certainly didn't get that. Despite the fact that the performers seem to be charging through it as quickly as they can, the show feels long. Numerous moments where characters should connect simply don't come off. Yes, there's much to recommend it, but I can't. On the other hand, my 10-year-old liked it a lot. You might be better off listening to him.

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