BANGOR – This holiday season, Penobscot Theatre Company is offering up a beloved musical – with a twist.
PTC’s production of “Oliver!” – based on the Charles Dickens classic “Oliver Twist” with music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart – is up and running at the Bangor Opera House. With stage direction and choreography by Allison Bibicoff and music direction by Phil Burns, the show runs through Dec. 24.
For those unfamiliar, it’s the story of a young orphan by the name of Oliver Twist who struggles to get by in the sad, grim world that is mid-19th century London. Everyone he encounters fails to do right by him, whether he’s in an orphanage, with a foster family or drawn in by a seedy crowd of criminal types. And yet, through it all, he remains indefatigable.
Young Oliver Twist (Zachary Spreng) is living as a ward of the state in a workhouse run by the greedy Mr. Bumble (Ben Layman) and the coarse Widow Corney (Elena DeSiervo). He has the audacity to ask for more food, which leads to him being sold by Bumble to the local undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Alekzander Sayers) and his wife (Annie Leonardi-Merchant). Unfortunately, the Sowerberrys aren’t nice people and circumstances lead Oliver to once again have to flee.
He is discovered by a charming urchin who calls himself the Artful Dodger (Andrew Barrett), who enlists him to join up with the gang of young thieves and pickpockets presided over by the oily Fagin (Dominick Varney). He also meets Nancy (Brianne Beck), the erstwhile companion of one of the London underworld’s most feared figures.
When Oliver goes out on his first thieving run, he is almost immediately captured and taken in. However, the man who accused Oliver – Mr. Brownlow (Frank Booker) – soon realizes his mistake and takes the young waif in. Bumble and Corney seek out Oliver in hopes of some sort of payoff, but Brownlow sees through their ruse; he also sees a gold locket that indicates he might know more about Oliver than he initially thought.
Here’s where the aforementioned feared figure turns up. Bill Sykes (Neil E. Graham) wants to get Oliver back before he can rat on the rest of the gang. He and Nancy wind up snatching up Oliver to return him to Fagin’s hideout. However, the wheels are in motion and things cannot return to the way they once were; it becomes clear that one way or another, life will never be the same for young Oliver Twist.
On first glance, it might seem that thematically, “Oliver!” is a bit bleak for the holiday season. Of course, it’s easy to forget that the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” deals with many of the same dark themes – with some ghosts thrown in for good measure. The reality is that despite the sad surroundings (or perhaps even because of them), there’s a brightness and joy inherent to the show.
That brightness springs largely from the phenomenal work of the performers. Zachary Spreng is a bundle of sweet charm as the titular Oliver; he has a tenderness about him that manages to supersede the bleak nature of his circumstances. There’s a lightness to his voice as well – his performance of “Where is Love?” is heartwrenching. And Andrew Barrett embodies the Cockney slickness of the Artful Dodger, creating a character both incredibly likeable and utterly untrustworthy. He also crushes his work on the classic tune “Consider Yourself At Home.” It’s a smooth and engaging performance.
There are some awesome adult turns as well. Layman and DeSiervo are individually bright lights whose partnership serves to make them shine all the brighter – their duet on “I Shall Scream: is, well…a scream. They’re a great comic pairing. Varney turns it up to 11 as Fagin, putting forth a mischievous energy that is infectious and (at times literally) magical; his ensemble-backed “Pick a Pocket or Two” is one of the finest numbers in the entire show. Beck’s Nancy is sadly sympathetic – she straight-up stops the show with the haunting “As Long As He Needs Me.” And Graham gives us an epitomical take on the Dickensian villain with his Bill Sykes; he rumbles and roars across the stage, creating an eminently hissable presence.
But while those performances are certainly wonderful, shows of this scale live and die on the backs of the ensemble. The kids are all right and then some – Kate Adam, Aidan Babbitt, Emma Campbell, Molly Hagerty, Anna Kemble, Noam Osher and Zivi Osher might all be high school age and younger, but their across-the-board commitment belies their years. The adult members of the ensemble – Sayers, Leonardi-Merchant and Booker; Daniel Kennedy, Grace Livingston-Kramer and Rebekah Kay Perry – are on point as well, doing their part to populate this world with rich, compelling characters.
There are a lot of moving parts to this show; director Bibicoff keeps things running smoothly and seamlessly. She pulls quality performances from everyone in her ensemble; no matter where you look, there are no blank moments. Her high-octane choreography plays a huge role in that sense of fullness – the movement in this piece is as good as any we’ve recently seen from a PTC production.
Music director Phil Burns has done magnificent work. He and vocal coach Tina Burns have ensured that nary a wrong note is struck. He also plays keyboard for the show, joined by Carl Ferm (woodwinds), Tom Libby (percussion), Lori Wingo (trumpet/French horn) and James Winters (trombone); as a group, they’re as tight as can be.
Production values are always an important factor, but doubly so when it comes to a holiday extravaganza. Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs has matched the show’s tone beautifully with her set, creating something with a run-down aesthetic and excellent flexibility. Scout Hough’s lighting design strikes the right balance of shine and shadow, fading some moments into shade and throwing others into sharp relief. Costume designer Kevin Koski works his usual magic, capturing the spirit of the story as effectively as ever (my personal favorite might be the orphan outfits made from what appear to be actual potato sacks). Brandie Larkin continues to display her mastery of the odd Opera House acoustics with her sound design, while Ben Wetzel’s props are the ideal blend of form and function.
“Oliver!” might not be the first show you think of when you think of the holiday experience. Honestly, that doesn’t really matter. This production is big, bright and filled with marvelous music and phenomenal performances; great-looking, great-sounding fun for the entire family.
So stop by the Opera House and check it out. And while you’re there, consider yourself at home.