Lawrence Toppman

CPCC’s take on ‘Oliver!’ earns its exclamation point

Oliver Twist (Bennett Harris) wonders “Where is Love?” when sent to live with cruel undertakers in “Oliver!”
Oliver Twist (Bennett Harris) wonders “Where is Love?” when sent to live with cruel undertakers in “Oliver!” Chris Record

How dark should the musical “Oliver!” get? Ought it to be more Dickensian than funny, acknowledging that characters murder and steal and sell their bodies, as the 1994 revival with Jonathan Pryce did? Or should it be a sunnier songfest like the 1968 movie, the last G-rated winner of the Academy Award for best picture?

The clue may be the exclamation point, taken from “Oklahoma!” 17 years before “Oliver!” opened in London in 1960. For all the poverty and two significant deaths, this remains a happy tale: Boy meets benefactor, boy loses benefactor, boy gets benefactor. The kid who once begged for more gruel will now want for nothing.

CPCC Summer Theatre, which opens its 42nd season with this hummable show, follows that idea.

Choreographer Ron Chisholm, perhaps thinking of Onna White’s numbers for the film, sets pickpockets, policemen and passers-by whirling and high-kicking. Director Tom Hollis lets true evil creep in for bits of the second act but minimizes the violence and maximizes the whimsy.

Rob Addison walks an especially fine line as Fagin. He’s irascible, avaricious, physically and morally unclean. Yet we’re meant to like his rascality; he’s a grown-up (if still immature) version of Artful Dodger, and the final freeze of them headed off together gets a laugh. (Thomas Young plays Dodger as well-pleased with himself, which he should be.)

You know the story, right? Orphaned Oliver (Bennett Harris) gets sold by an abusive workhouse superintendent (Craig Estep) to an unpleasant family of undertakers. He takes off, gets befriended by Dodger and lands in a lair full of runaways who steal for Fagin.

Mr. Brownlow (Eric Johnston, an asset in a throwaway role) decides to help; he’s opposed by thuggish Bill Sykes (Tommy Foster) but abetted by Nancy (Corinne Littlefield), who loves Bill but suddenly feels maternal toward the boy.

Lionel Bart wrote songs that stick with you immediately, including “I’d Do Anything,” “As Long As He Needs Me” and “Who Will Buy?” (He never had another hit show; his other claim to fame is the theme song to “From Russia, With Love.”)

But his slender, rudimentary book jolts from scene to scene, making characters change attitudes in an instant. (And not always believably.) So broad performances work best in comic moments, not serious ones.

Foster’s Sykes is a puffed-up, blustering bully, not a sinister psychopath. Littlefield steals scenes as coarse, vivid Nancy, singing zestfully in a strong voice, but her quick change into Oliver’s defender seems hasty.

Gary Sivak’s clever sets get on and off quickly, and Jamey Varnadore’s costumes add to the visual Victoriana. (This is set in 1850.) The stage microphones suffered their perennial Halton Theater mishaps but didn’t hamper Drina Keen’s jaunty orchestra.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Oliver!’

CPCC Summer Theatre kicks off its season with the Lionel Bart musical adapted from Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”

WHEN: Through June 13 at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.

TICKETS: $18-22 ($10 ages 15 and under).

DETAILS: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.

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