Lionel Bart’s perennial “Oliver!,” his immensely tuneful 1960 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “Oliver Twist,” has been thrillingly reborn as a dynamic, ensemble-driven triumph at the Human Race Theatre Company.
Astutely conceived with inspired direction by Alan Souza, previously associated with the Human Race productions of “Was” and “Ears on a Beatle,” “Oliver!” doesn’t begin in the traditional confines of a workhouse with a throng of hungry orphans. In Souza’s innovative landscape, the Dickensian London setting is Christmas Eve 1838 in a modest British pub, handsomely designed by David A Centers. The “Food, Glorious Food” is still praised, but the song primarily belongs to an assortment of ordinary, tough, working class men who know the tavern and each other very well, particularly the curiously combative, foreshadowing relationship between the bartender and his significant other whose child he derides. Souza doesn’t reveal their identities, which may be perturbing or perplexing to some, but these individuals are undeniably unified as their rough and tumble existence finds welcomed relief and unexpected similarities in an impromptu decision to interpret this musical rendering of “Oliver Twist,” originally published in monthly installments in “Bentley’s Miscellany” periodical beginning in 1837.
As the bouncy title song kicks into gear, this rowdy bunch, appropriately with periodical in hand, seamlessly transition from the tavern backdrop into the familiar framework of the tale, full of the engaging, iconic characters Dickens meticulously constructed to mirror the corrupt, hypocritical, impoverished and menacing society he knew so well. Thanks to Souza’s incredibly versatile 10-member cast, Spencer Liff’s phenomenal choreography, Helen Gregory’s first-rate musical direction, and John Rensel’s excellently subtle lighting design, the two worlds smoothly coalesce without overt confusion. Fortunately, Souza’s fresh, communal approach doesn’t produce a dull moment and is consistently arresting. Even the altered if abrupt conclusion, authentically correlating with “Oliver Twist” remaining unfinished in “Bentley’s Miscellany” until 1839, packs a dark, dramatic punch. It’s extremely exciting and rare to see a director reinterpret a tried and true product with intimate boldness. In fact, Souza’s vision recalls John Doyle’s scaled-down, ensemble-centric 2005 Tony-winning revival of “Sweeney Todd,” which also lived uniquely outside the box within an intriguing milieu. And for pure ingenuity, Souza, Liff and Gregory’s kinship recalls Roger Rees and Alex Timbers’ equally creative handling of this year’s Tony-nominated play-with-music “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
Liff, a Broadway standout who received an Emmy nomination four months ago for his splendid routines on last season’s edition of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” absolutely pulls out the stops using nearly every inch of the Loft Theatre stage for a dazzling array of breathtaking, energetic, applause-inducing sequences reflecting his trademark athletic artistry. In addition to his fantastic use of set pieces and props adhering to the tavern setting, I was particularly in awe of the jubilant atmospherics of the show-stopping “Consider Yourself,” the fast-paced cleverness permeating “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” the humorously posh sensibilities within “I’d Do Anything,” the amusing nod to “Les Miserables” in “Be Back Soon,” the rambunctious kicks, leaps and twirls of “Oom-Pah-Pah,” and the sliding, gliding, gleeful exuberance of “Who Will Buy?” The spirited ensemble is vigorously immersed in every mesmerizing routine to the utmost, undergoing the epitome of a theatrical workout. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gatorade is stored backstage for this hard-working crew.
Attractively costumed in period attire by Molly Walz, Souza’s marvelously cohesive cast portrays multiple roles with expertly detailed aplomb. In the titular role, Blaise Bouschard is an appealingly innocent, humble presence offering pleasant vocals, especially in his sincerely plaintive rendition of “Where is Love?” Gary Troy’s humorously slick, shrewd interpretation of Fagin, the scoundrel who craves his treasure and independence with equal passion, culminates with a delectably superb “Reviewing the Situation.” As the saucy, abused Nancy, Sara Sheperd, a terrific vocalist and a lively source of vigor and warmth, particularly supplies a compelling rendition of the lovely torch ballad “As Long as He Needs Me.” Nicholas Belton, another fine singer, is a perfectly brooding Bill Sikes. Joseph Medeiros, a skillfully sharp dancer with numerous Broadway credits, is a charming, crafty and witty Artful Dodger. He also scores big laughs as Widow Corney in “I Shall Scream” opposite the fittingly authoritative and droll Scott Stoney as Mr. Bumble. Adam Lendermon delights as creepy undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and is strikingly believable as the gentle, soft-spoken Mrs. Bedwin. Chris Shea is a great fit as the kindly Mr. Brownlow and the hopelessly agitated Mrs. Sowerberry. Ian DeVine, a Wright State University senior musical theater major who continues to amaze, winningly startles and intimidates as the cruel Noah Claypole. As Bet, the aforementioned, multitasking Gregory amiably partners with Sheperd for back-to-back knockouts “It’s a Fine Life” and “I’d Do Anything.”
Brilliantly enhancing the art of storytelling through concept, song and dance, Souza, Liff and Gregory have overseen a must-see showcase, coinciding with the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth, which could have a life beyond Dayton in regional theaters or beyond. After all, Broadway hasn’t revived “Oliver!” since 1984, and considering the current success of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s terrific production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” there could be a timely Dickens resurgence brewing which this version could promisingly accentuate.
Purists may scoff, but the Human Race supplies a joyously refreshing experience expanding the possibilities of what musical theater can be.
“Oliver!” continues through Dec. 22 in the Loft Theatre of the Human Race Theatre Company, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. There is also a 2 p.m. performance on Dec. 22. The Dec. 11 performance is sold out. A post-show discussion will follow the Dec. 9 performance. Jonah Sorscher is also featured in the cast as the Oliver understudy. Tickets are $17.50-$45. A limited number of $25 tickets are available for each performance. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or www.ticketcenterstage.com. For more information, call the Human Race at (937) 461-3823 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.