By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III
“The People’s Critic”
(Conroe COURIER 03.07.07----www.ThePeoplesCritic.com 03.07.07)I spent many years being a bit jealous of my younger sister Sara because she had seen the original production of “Oliver” on Broadway. But I am making up for lost time. While attending Ontario’s 2006 Stratford Shakespeare Festival with fellow members of The American Theatre Critics Association, I had the wonderful opportunity to see the festival’s production of “Oliver,” starring renowned Canadian actor, Colm Feore, in the juicy role of Fagin. Now, here in Texas, I have had the pleasure of seeing the marvelous Class Act Productions edition of this entertaining Lionel Bart musical, based on the classic Dickens novel, ''Oliver Twist'', and skillfully directed by Class Act founder, Keith Brumfield. What a wonderful way to escape the snowstorms that confronted me in New York!
The pre-show excitement of this opening weekend was evident in the busy lobby areas of the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts. The assorted fundraiser options of this powerhouse organization for young thespians included snack bars, raffles and cast photos, all of which help to finance the first-class production values fans have come to expect. I hope the Bock’s “powers that be” will consider this company’s incredible contributions to the Montgomery County community and keep the theater’s rental fees appropriately moderate for Class Act. Anyone who witnessed the show’s joyful opener, “Food Glorious Food,” knew immediately that as this beaming young cast sang its way through the audience to the stage they were on a very special journey of their own. Such musical cast trips through the audience would be a hallmark of the evening as the device was cleverly used to distract the audience while needed set changes occurred behind the curtain.
The familiar plot, of course, revolves around the misadventures of the young orphan, Oliver, (wistfully played here to sweet vocal perfection by youthful charmer, Harrison Baker, who, in numbers like his signature song, “Where is Love?”, sounded like he had been plucked right out of the Vienna Boys Choir ). Along the way we meet the cruel directors of the orphanage, Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, featuring the vocally and comically talented duo of John Watkins and Alyssa Porter. They steal the show in numbers like “I Shall Scream.” Mr. Watkins delivers a stunning rendition of “Boy for Sale,” the conclusion of which should have been timed a bit better to allow for the applause he certainly deserved. There is more comic fun from Josiah Miller and Cecily Breaux as Mr. & Mrs. Sowberry, the funeral home directors who take Oliver on as apprentice. The Sowberrys delight the audience with “That’s Your Funeral,” and Miss Breaux had a particular talent for projecting amusing facial expressions. Then we have the conniving antics of the Artful Dodger (Aaron Boudreaux, as he leads the joyful “Consider Yourself“), and his little band of pickpockets and thieves, headed by the avaricious Fagin, with a homerun performance from Keith Hale. Like many of these young performers attempting British accents, Hale had a tendency to rush his lines, making some dialogue difficult to hear. (Unlike our star, Mr. Baker, whose clear-voiced articulation was evident, whether in song or spoken dialogue.) With an amusing contrast between his youthful face and his long brown beard, Mr. Hale made up for rushed dialogue with fine singing (and an almost spooky grace of movement). He leads the ruffians in corrupting young Oliver with the raucous “Pick a Pocket or Two,” and prowls the stage with perfect comic timing, and tongue-twisting skill, while singing a “Reviewing the Situation” that was handsomely accented by orchestra member Jennifer Davis on violin. Nancy (Alex Cochran) is a sweet friend to Fagin and his boys, and Nancy’s pal, Bet (Caroline Davis) joins them all for the joyous delights of “It‘s a Fine Life,” and “I’d Do Anything.” We also meet the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Derrick Manning), who seeks to rescue Oliver from life on the streets.
The fine orchestra was under the able musical direction of Rae Moses. Set designs (Rod Fowler), especially the vibrant street scenes, were as bright and gay as the period costumes (designer, Carolyn Zirelli), and charming dances (choreographer, Elizabeth DeMonico). And there are more scenic delights with a fully rotating house, and a realistic London Bridge in fog (technical director, Matt Freneau - Lighting, Blake Minor). But again and again, it was the fine singing of the enormous ensemble cast that made “Oliver” so irresistible.
Act II highlights included the full-company, “Oom-Pah-Pah,” led by Miss Cochran. With its saucy lyrics, whirling choreography, and infectious melody, this number was a real winner. That fun was tempered a bit by the arrival of Nancy’s ominous boyfriend, Bill Sykes (Trey Westerberg), who scares everyone with the fearsome, “My Name.” One can only wonder what Nancy sees in this guy as she sings the lovely “As Long As He Needs Me.” Another second act treat was the thrilling “Who Will Buy” number that was exquisitely staged and sung to mystical perfection by the ensemble. It is no wonder that the Class Act organization, now well into its second decade, has young graduates working in theater, film, and television all across the nation from New York to Hollywood. It’s a fitting tribute to founder Brumfield and the army of youngsters, parents, and volunteers that continue to propel Class Act to ever-higher levels of success.
"Oliver!" continues this weekend at the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts, located at 3800 S. Panther Creek Drive in The Woodlands, with performances at 7:30 p.m. March 7th and 8th; and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday March 9. Reserved tickets are $18. Phone: (936) 273-3395 On the web: www.classactproductions.org