By Carolyn Hayes
However harsh and cold this Michigan winter proves, the swiftly modernizing world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution was a far harsher and colder place. Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” uses music to allay the sickening realities of the plight of children in 19th-century London, following one orphaned boy whose only options for survival are legal destitution and illegal subsistence. In the production at The Encore Musical Theatre Company, director/choreographer Alisa Bauer hits the expected marks of this lauded show, with highs and lows along the way that balance out to a passable midline of entertainment value appropriate for all ages.
The musical’s broad swath of characters and sweeping plot dash through the main plot points of “Oliver Twist,” the Charles Dickens novel on which it is based. At first a child laborer, toiling for daily gruel in a workhouse, Oliver differentiates himself from his peers by daring to beg for more food. Branded a troublemaker, he’s then sold as an apprentice, suffers and escapes more cruelty disguised as “charity,” and then falls in with a happy band of street urchins, whose father figure instructs and conducts them in the art of petty larceny for his own profit. Yet all through his trials, Oliver continues reaching out with hope for the kind of human decency and caring that his world tells him he doesn’t deserve.
This production is chiefly a by-the-book presentation, striving for period authenticity and basic storytelling continuity and generally hitting the target, if not the bull’s-eye. Bauer’s staging and choreography is direct and efficient to a fault, relying on unison gestures and movements to heave the story along; finesse is in short supply. This is in contrast to the excellent, elastic music direction by CT Hollis, whose deft, unseen accompaniment makes the performers sound the very best they can.
The filthy, too-crowded underworld of a London that grew too big too fast is given appropriate Dickensian grit by Daniel C. Walker’s soaring scenic design and intentionally dingy lighting. Costume design by Sharon Urick conveys signifiers of wealth and poverty without resorting to outright rags, keeping the production out of the total downer range.
For years, The Encore has proven a hothouse of young talent, here assembled into a cadre of about a dozen child performers who keep pace with their elders and pull considerable weight – this is no kid’s chorus trotted out at opportune moments.
As the title character, Alejandro Cantu sings with confidence that outstrips his meek stage presence (although in fairness, he can do little as Oliver and the adult characters around him would still condemn themselves with ease, even without the benefit of comparison). Also noteworthy is Ben Chambers, who playfully shows clear Vaudevillian influences as the brash and boastful Artful Dodger.
However, it’s the adult actors who bear the responsibility of tone and intent, which here is so factious it borders on schizophrenic. The coyly humorous scene of seduction between the workhouse bosses (David Kiley and Christine Purchis) is the first of several intended to highlight the duplicity and outright hypocrisy of the age. Yet it bears little resemblance to Oliver’s brief stint with an undertaker and his wife (William Fowle and Sara Catheryn Wolf), which devolves into a Keystone Kops-like fiasco in order to take the sting out of abject child abuse. Later, Andrew Gorney’s contemptuous villainy is one handlebar mustache away from tying some woman to the railroad tracks, whereas Tim Brayman and Anne Bauman find themselves in the throes of breathless melodrama at the legitimately threatened future of the young man whose dismal world offers no positive outcomes.
Individually, the beats and performances do serve the needs of the scene, and some are especially strong. The pickpocket ringleader Fagin is always an audience favorite, and Tobin Hissong brings genuine charm as a beloved uncle type, even as he stealthily grooms his colony of pliant, conscripted innocents for lives of crime.
Yet it’s Mahalia Greenway who runs away with the production as Nancy; the only one whose character journey is based in emotion, Greenway’s maternal tendencies come across as a blast of warmth, and her warring inner loyalties shine through in tenderly vulnerable, yet vocally triumphant, moments of wretched revelation.
Dickens had an unusual knack for making his readers laugh at absurdity, but also care about the bleak realities it exposed and the characters suffering within it. Clearly, the same feat is difficult to accomplish in a musical adaptation, whose haste to encompass the whole story makes the show feel breezy and far shorter than its two-plus hours. This “Oliver!” manages to honor the tenor of its every scene and song, despite sometimes coming across as jumpy and halting in the process. Yet the de-emphasis on the social commentary of the source material, and the corresponding focus on laughter and thrills, should help open up the production to younger audiences, providing sufficient entertainment value to hold the whole family’s interest.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through March 2. 2 hours, 15 minutes. $22-32. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org