The British musical “Oliver” has been entertaining audiences for well more than half a century, and it never goes out of style. The 19th-century setting and Cockney accents, done with style and wit by the Tacoma Musical Playhouse cast, make it just foreign enough for American audiences to not be put off by the horrors of poverty, cruelty and murder in the story.
Indeed, many of the scoundrels and thieves are presented as comical characters, with Fagin (Sam Barker) and Mr. Bumble (Brian Cox) as prime examples of hateful guys you can’t help loving.
The nastiest of all, however, is not played comically, but as a straight-out bad guy who is proud of being the biggest, baddest man in town. That would be the club-wielding Bill Sykes (Johnny Neidlinger).
“Oliver” is based on the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist,” with book and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Oliver (Liam Loughridge), an orphan boy, is not only kicked out of the orphanage, but sold like a slave to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Joe Woodland) for the offense of asking for a second helping of gruel.
He escapes and ends up living with a troupe of boy pickpockets working for Fagin, who provides them with a hovel in which to live and takes all the loot they steal. There he is befriended by the Artful Dodger (Helene Minassian) and Nancy (Nancy Hebert-Bach), the live-in girlfriend of the dreaded Bill Sykes. On his first pick-pocketing foray, Oliver is caught but set free and taken in by the wealthy and kindly Mr. Brownlow (Andrew Fry).
For the sake of readers who may not already know the story I will not say any more about the plot.
The storyline is just complex enough to be difficult to handle in a musical format, and the exposition drags a bit in the middle of the second act, but that is forgivable because of the great music and entertaining characters.
Loughridge is a young boy with, according to program notes, little theatrical experience outside the playhouse’s youth programs, with the exception of appearing in “A Christmas Story: The Musical” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre — quite a coup for any young actor. He plays Oliver as a sweet and innocent boy and sings beautifully with a soft voice that I wish could be amplified a bit more.
Cox as Mr. Bumble and Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson as the Widow Corney are fabulously funny in their opening scene when they appear looking like the Thénardiers in “Les Misérables.” They are big, bold and funny. Their seduction scene with the song “I Shall Scream” is hilarious.
Minassian is captivating and brimming with energy as the Artful Dodger. Her performance marks the second time I’ve seen a girl play the part, and a quick Internet search tells me it’s not an uncommon practice, but not so common as a female playing Peter Pan. Minassian is great. Her broad gestures and exuberance are infectious. I hope to see more of her in the future.
Barker’s portrayal of Fagin is comic gold. What a repertoire of facial expressions.
By far the most affecting and most powerful performance of all is Hebert-Bach’s Nancy. She is the most complex character in the play, desperately in love with a man who abuses her and asks her to do things she knows are wrong. Hebert-Bach makes us feel Nancy’s inner turmoil. Interestingly considered how long ago the play was written, her psychology is typical of what we now know about spousal abuse victims. Her breathtaking solo on “As Long As He Needs Me” is the most emotionally draining song in the play.
There is some business going on behind her, however, that is terribly distracting at the worst possible time as stage hands move sets while she is still singing. They should have waited, even if it meant delaying the next scene.
Overall, the acting and the music are outstanding, as is the set by Bruce Haasl and, as always, the great orchestra directed by Jeff Stvrtecky.
Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Oct. 11.
Where: Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.
Information: 253-565-6867, tmp.org.