Chicago Theatre Review
It’s a Fine Life
Oliver – Citadel Theatre
Filling the Citadel stage with more than two dozen talented actor/singer/dancers, Pat Murphy’s production of Lionel Bart’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist, is dark, often tragic, but filled with moments of comedy and music. Mr. Murphy and his creative team have fashioned a fine, family-friendly production that has so much more to offer than simply a large cast.
Despite having written pop songs and other shows for the stage, Lionel Bart’s legacy will always be this beloved, melodious musical, with a script, music and lyrics all composed by the talented Brit. It also has the distinction of being the first modern British musical to successfully transfer from the West End to Broadway, back in 1963. Five years later Bart’s magnum opus found its way to the silver screen, earning an Academy Award for Best Picture. In addition to telling the melodramatic, yet touching story of a little orphan boy who survives the system, finally becoming a part of a loving family, the score boasts some of musical theatre’s finest music. With standards like, “Consider Yourself,” “Food, Glorious Food,” and the touching, “As Long As He Needs Me,” the score boasts many comic numbers, rousing music hall ditties and a few more haunting ballads, filled with heart.
Kudos to Artistic Director Scott Phelps for selecting this beautiful show, perhaps a strange choice to many, considering the physical limitations of this venue. But, as several other professional theatres in Chicago have already shown, less is often more; and often, a big, blockbuster show can be pared down into a more unpretentious production that still serves up the goods. Second, this production is presented upon a simple, versatile stage setting, designed and painted by David Geinosky
and built by Jason Clark. Next, there’s plenty of spirited dance numbers, choreographed especially for Citadel Theatre’s modest space by Jennifer Cupani, and executed by an ensemble that gives it their all.
Finally there’s that large cast, bursting with enthusiasm and energy. Henry Michael Odum creates a strong, smart and very funny Fagin. Mr. Odum not only sings and moves well, he does an excellent job of layering this complicated character, who’s really a kind of anti-hero. As the ringleader of a children’s band of robbers out to fleece the London citizenry of nose rags, pocket watches and wallets, Fagin isn’t your typical father figure. But there are moments in this production when Odum shows the character’s softer side, becoming almost paternal, while still looking out for number one.
Murphy has double cast the leading juvenile roles of Oliver and the Artful Dodger, as well as the workhouse’s villainous Widow Corney. As Oliver Twist, young Roy Gantz, sharing the role at alternate performances with Zachary Fewkes, does a wonderful job. Master Gantz sports a gorgeous, almost angelic singing voice, all the while reacting to the brutal hardships inflicted by cruel, mercenary adults. As the Artful Dodger, Logan Aldrich displays strong, beautifully expressive vocals, although in striving for a Cockney dialect he tends to garble his lines, sometimes becoming difficult to understand. Master Aldrich shares his role on alternate nights with the diminutive Asher Alcantara who, when not playing Dodger, is also marvelous in the ensemble, standing out in every scene.
Erin Renee Baumrucker makes a spunky, golden-throated Nancy, the bad girl with a heart of gold. The actress plays this tough woman of the streets, but reveals her true, maternal instincts with the children. Whether delighting with the catchy, “It’s a Fine Life,” the warmly comic, “I’d Do Anything” (sung with the talented young Haley Noll, as Bet), or belting out the raucous, rathskeller round, “Oom-Pah-Pah,” Ms. Baumrucker proves she’s a musical actress to watch. But when she caresses the beautiful “As Long As He Needs Me,” it’s as if this talented lady has ripped out her heart and presented it to the audience.
Other standouts in this cast include Michael Ermel, as a perfectly cast, thoroughly frightening Bill Sykes, his deep baritone filling the entire theatre; Andy Clifton is a distinguished, wealthy Mr. Brownlow; Mary K. Nigohosian (sharing the role with Nancy Greco) makes a shrew-like Widow Corney; sweet little Ashley MacDougal and Cate Gordon are charming as the only little girls in Fagin’s band of thieves; and the four talented singing street vendors (Natalie Rae, Alison Stake, Aaron Mann and Dustin Rothbart) are excellent, selling their wares in “Who Will Buy?”
On the downside, musical director Dan Ermel has an unfortunate uphill battle, keeping many of his singers on the beat. Because of limited space, there’s no room for a pit orchestra. The recorded accompaniment he must utilize can be unforgiving. The more seasoned performers don’t have as much difficulty but other actors, especially Steve Malone as Mr. Bumble, seem to be in a constant race with the music. Hopefully, with a few more performances under their belt, those experiencing difficulty will find their beat.
This musical is an ambitious undertaking for Citadel. It offers many challenges for this company by demanding a large cast with several juvenile performers, at least two of the youngsters in leading roles. The modest Citadel stage appears to be better suited to a smaller cast, a less-ambitious set and a simpler method of accompaniment. However, with the success of this particular production, audiences will now look forward to more large scale shows designed to fit this company. For now, this production, which is aimed at family audiences, offers theatergoers a holiday treat reminding us that “It’s a Fine, Fine Life.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 20-December 20 by Citadel Theatre Company, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-735-8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Further information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.