December 6–24, 2011
NAC English Theatre Company
Directed by Dayna Tekatch
Musical direction by Allen Cole
Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart
You know, if I had been at home, watching this production on the television, sitting cozily in my big, green chair, I would have turned it off after the first 10 minutes.
But I would have missed out on so much.
Such was the opening night of the NAC's production of the musical version of Charles Dickens' classic tale of Oliver Twist. For me, it started off in such a weak way that it made me want to walk out. Instead, I sank low into my seat, folded my arms, and tried, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep.
Let me start off by saying that I'm not a fan of musicals. I love theatre. I love music. But for some reason I don't like the two together. I want a story, or I want a music performance with an artist or band. I don't want a play where the story is presented by singing and dancing.
That said, I have watched musicals and have been able to appreciate them for what they are. And I have seen Oliver! performed on stage before; I've seen the 1968 film many times. I've seen some fabulous musicals on stage—the 1994 Pirates of Penzance at the Stratford Festival was amazing, as was the 1995 Shaw Festival production of Cavalcade.
But musicals aren't really my thing. So, if I go to see one, it had better knock my socks off.
On Friday, my socks didn't even feel a draft.
The first problem that I had to overcome, besides my dislike for musicals, was that there were no children used in the production. The entire cast was composed of adults. I should sue the company for false advertising. There's a child on the poster for the play, but no child could be found on the set. I know that I should have suspended my disbelief, but in the opening scene, where the "children" were singing and dancing in the orphanage, waiting for their food, I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that adults, not children, were banging their metal bowls. If I was unfamiliar with the story, I would have thought that this was a play about prison inmates. There was no indication that the characters were not grownups.
The singing and dancing was fine, but I was confused at what I was watching. Adults shouldn't play children when an orphanage can be mistaken for a prison, and maybe in Dickens' time, there was a fine line between the two. Victorian England was a tough place to be when you were poor.
That said, the choreography for the opening number, "Food, Glorious Food," was well presented and well sung, even if I had to get my head around the adults.
The role of Oliver is played by Thomas Olajide, who, with his opening line—"please, sir, I want some more"—sounded to me less like a small boy and more like a nervous man.
But more on Olajide later.
In to the next scene, we are introduced to Mr. Bumble (Jeremiah Sparks) and Widow Corney (Randi Helmers), the corrupt administrators of the orphanage. The chemistry between the two characters was lacking. It was awkward. It wasn't well played. But I do give credit to Sparks for his wonderful voice and solid performance later in the second half.
Despite my dislike of musicals, I did enjoy some of the numbers, including the large performance by the cast as chimney sweeps, merchants, and residents, through "Consider Yourself," led by the Artful Dodger, wonderfully played by Jennifer Waiser. Waiser was absolutely stellar as the boy who recruited pickpockets for the criminal, Fagin.
Fagin, played by Joey Tremblay, stole the show. Fagin was larger than life, made us loathe the seedy side of London while making us love his softer side. Fagin is the scoundrel we love to hate, and Tremblay's performance was truly lovable. The highlight of his performance was his rendition of "Reviewing the Situation," where Fagin considers and reconsiders leaving his life in the underworld and going legit. His casual interaction with the audience was priceless.
Recognition goes to Julie Tamiko Manning for her portrayal of Nancy, the girlfriend of villain Bill Sykes (Shawn Wright). Manning is convincing as the fearless motherly friend to Oliver, despite the abuse at the hands of Sykes. Her singing, for the most part, was tolerable.
This is the first time that the NAC Theatre Company has performed a musical, and it is a very bold move for them. They gave it their all. But in my opinion, it didn't always work. Like Oliver, I wanted more. Much more.
Apart from the songs I mentioned, I found it hard to sit through the numbers (keeping in mind, I don't like musicals but I appreciate music). And to return to Olajide, while his performance was fine but a little weak, his singing was atrocious.
As I said at the start of this review, if I had been watching this performance on television, I would have turned the set off in the first few minutes. The confusion with associating adults with children, the weak scene with Bumble and Corney (especially through the "I Shall Scream" number), and the seemingly weak performance from Olajide, what really lost me was when Olajide sang "Where Is Love?"
Olajide cannot sing. Not even a bit. And for me, one who doesn't like musicals, if you're going to sing, you had better be good. And so I had a tough time enjoying any song that involved Oliver chiming in.
The second act was much better than the first. The "Oom-Pah-Pah" number roused me from the grumpy mood I was in after my wife wouldn't let me leave during intermission. "Who Will Buy" was well done, despite Olajide's singing (the rest of the actors carried the number). And I laughed during the scene with Dr. Grimwig (Dennis Fitzgerald).
Had I walked out during intermission, I would have missed an entertaining second act.
And this is what I found so shameful about this production: I wasn't grabbed at the start. In fact, I was pushed away. By the time "Where Is Love?" was finished, I too was done. I didn't want to watch any more. But I stayed. I took a deep breath. And I slowly started to come back. And I was rewarded for my perseverance. Because it got better.
I hope that the weak opening was due to the fact that it was opening night and that the crew was still working out kinks in the performance. I hope that the company improves. And maybe, just maybe, I might return for another musical.