A Review of Oliver!

oliver7 (5)by Matthew Falduto
Photos by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography

Coralville – Winter is a time when communities often come together as the holidays approach. There are food drives, angel trees and soup suppers to show our community that we care about each other. Building that sense of community is important… and one more way to do that is to be a part of a community theatre. Coralville is fortunate to have City Circle Acting Company and Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, and this month, you have a chance to be a part of that community theatre experience by attending their latest show, an excellent production of the musical Oliver! by Lionel Bart.

As musicals go, Oliver! has great songs, lots of humor, and, unfortunately, a pretty weak story. Oliver Twist (the angelic Elliot Manjoine) is an orphan who gets sold to an undertaker, runs away and joins a gang of thieves, gets caught stealing, and then discovers how much better rich people live. Where will he end up – with the rich folks or with the thieves? There are a lot of social issues present in the story, but the musical can’t be bothered to actually confront them. (If you would like to think about them, check out the novel by Charles Dickens upon which the musical is based.) Nevertheless, the story of the musical has lots of fun moments as well as some thrilling ones.

All of those moments are made even better by the excellent decisions from the technical artists. The costumes (Bethany Horning and Mary Jo Harken) were perfect. The set (Mark Tracey) was impressive, with a bridge spanning the entire length of the stage. Lighting (Courtney Schmitz) and sound (Rachel Duncan) also enhanced the show.

oliver7 (4)Manjoine is great as Oliver, showing an innocence that immediately draws the audience in. His voice is good, too, particularly on the challenging song “Where is Love?” The Artful Dodger, played with strutting charm by Tobias Epstein, instructs Oliver in the ways of the thief. Oftentimes Dodger is played as too confident, but Epstein finds moments to show us that, in fact, he is just a boy playing the role of a confident thief. It’s a smart, nuanced performance.

Doug Beardsley as Fagin, the old thief who instructs the gang of children, is oozing charisma, commanding the stage whenever he sings. His rendition of “Reviewing the Situation” is a tour de force moment in the show, and while I personally find the song goes on a verse or two too long, Beardsley does a great job keeping it moving.

oliver7 (6)Scene stealers Ellen Stevenson and Derek Johnson were comedy gold as Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble. They used their excellent voices, not to mention perfect comic timing and expressive faces, to create so many funny moments. Their version of “I Shall Scream” made me want to scream with delight. I was often disappointed to see them leave the stage. Any chance someone wrote a sequel about the future adventures of Bumble and Corney? Stevenson and Johnson were born to play those roles.

There were other excellent supporting performances as well, particularly Sean Harken’s obnoxious Noah Claypole and Krista Neumann’s scene stealing moment as Old Sally.

That brings me to Bill Sykes (John Smick), the villain of the show, and Nancy (Jessica Wittman), his girlfriend. Before I tell you how wonderful both Smick and Wittman are, I have to write a little bit about one of the biggest problems with this story. So skip this next section if you just want to read a review. Of all of the issues with the book of the musical, this relationship is the most problematic one. Sykes is abusive to Nancy, and Nancy sings a song with lyrics such as:

Who else would love him still
When they’ve been used so ill?
He knows I always will…
As long as he needs me.

This is classic battered woman behavior and it’s really difficult to watch because the story doesn’t make it clear how wrong it is to love an abuser. No one learns anything from what happens to Nancy; it’s an incredibly unsatisfying story. My wife and I felt the need to make it clear to our three daughters after the show that it is not tragically heroic to love someone who hurts you. If only the book of the musical would have done that for us. (See the comments for more on this.)

oliver7 (3)All that said, Smick is terrifyingly wonderful as Sykes. Scary and intimidating, he lumbers across the stage, sending waves of fear rolling over everyone. Wittman is great as Nancy. Her voice is simply incredible, with stunning power and emotional depth that makes you gasp. These two are excellent performers and I hope to see both of them on stage again soon.

Director Elizabeth Tracey did a masterful job with the show. Her decision to have the orphans enter down the aisles for the “Food, Glorious Food” song was smart. The orphans did a great job with the song. I was impressed with the way they remained in character throughout the scene, especially considering the youth of many of the performers.

Another excellent directing decision was placing Sykes on the bridge for his introductory song, “My Name.” It created a greater sense of power for the villain, a good choice. Tracey made another good decision to alleviate one of the problems with the book of the musical. One of the issues is we never see Sykes’ relationship with Nancy as anything but negative, and so it solidifies again how horrible the relationship is. Tracey smartly has some of the cast return to the inn near the end of intermission, which allows us to see Nancy and Sykes together, and suggests some positive elements to their relationship. It isn’t really enough to mitigate the issues I discussed earlier, but it’s a smart move by a good director to make it less of an issue.

oliver7 (1)I also really enjoyed the staging of the song “Who Will Buy?,” with the rose vendor in the corner of the upper balcony and the milk vendor in the audience right aisle. The knife grinder and the strawberry vendor were on stage with Oliver. Manjoine really delivered on this song; I felt the joy of Oliver as he sang. I wish the program indicated which of the ensemble sang these parts, so I could single them out by name. All were excellent and the song was a highlight of the show. (Edited to add the names of the performers for this song: Christian Drollinger as the knife grinder, Ellen Fields as the strawberry seller, Rachel Abbe as the rose seller, and Emily Hill as the milk maid. Also featuring Eric Burchett.)

All of your favorites songs are here, staged in a creatively engaging ways, sung well by an excellent cast, and accompanied by a talented orchestra. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, I particularly enjoyed “Consider Yourself” and “I’d Do Anything.” Kudos to Music Director Wes Habley and Vocal Director Kristen Behrendt DeGrazia.

I encourage you to check out City Circle’s somewhat unconventional holiday show. I for one am pleased they moved away from shows such as A Christmas Carol and presented instead a fun, family oriented musical. The talented actors onstage are our neighbors and friends; get out the house and be a part of our incredible theatre community.

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5 thoughts on “A Review of Oliver!

  1. “This is classic battered woman behavior and it’s really difficult to watch because the story doesn’t make it clear how wrong it is to love an abuser. No one learns anything from what happens to Nancy; it’s an incredibly unsatisfying story. My wife and I felt the need to make it clear to our three daughters after the show that it is not tragically heroic to love someone who hurts you. If only the book of the musical would have done that for us.”

    And this is classic blame the victim behavior. It’s wrong to abuse women. I see no mention in your review of how wrong it is to beat women, how wrong it is to traffic children, how wrong it is to starve children in a workhouse, how wrong it is to estrange your pregnant daughter to the point that she leaves her home and gives birth, alone, and dies.

    These are all issues that surface during the musical, and yet you focus on blaming a woman for having an abusive lover.

    While I’m grateful that you focused on the talented cast for the most part, I’m disappointed in this article for its pontification on issues that have nothing to due with the production itself.

    • From the reviewer:

      “I appreciate the comment. I never imagined anyone would ever accuse me of victim blaming, but as I re-read what I wrote in light of what you wrote, I definitely see your point. I apologize. It was never my intent to suggest that the character of Nancy deserved what happened to her. My concern is that the script makes her appear heroic for staying with an abuser. It’s not heroic, and that’s not the message I’d want my daughters to take from the musical, but we also should not judge Nancy (or anyone in that situation) for staying with an abuser. And that was my mistake.

      As for pontificating on issues that don’t have anything to do with the production… well, I don’t often do that, but I will when I feel it’s necessary. Hopefully, I’ll do a better job expressing my point of view next time.”

      • Thank you for reading and thoughtfully responding. Your point is well taken that the book addresses these complex social issues in a much more direct way. I greatly appreciate that you took the time to consider my point of view as well.

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