Theater lovers should rush to the Bangor Opera House box office and beg: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
Not more of the gruel served to workhouse orphans in the musical “Oliver!” being performed there this holiday season, but tickets to enjoy this production.
Penobscot Theatre Company has mounted a delightful production of Lionel Bart’s 1960 show based on Charles Dickens’ story of a charming orphan boy named Oliver Twist. It is as sweet and satisfying as any holiday concoction being offered this season.
Director Allison Bibicoff has done a fine job creating a tight ensemble of local actors, many of them not yet adults. She uses the vast Opera House stage well and the show never drags.
Her star, 12-year-old Zachary Spreng, at times seems like a blank canvas, a trait that allows others to manipulate the naive Oliver Twist to be whom they want him to be. But when Spreng sings, “Where Is Love?” every heart in the theater melts and his sweet nature, rooted in an optimistic outlook on life, floods the audience. It is the moment when he becomes Oliver and it is transforming for all.
Dominick Varney gives what is, for him, an understated performance as Fagin, the man in a crew of street urchins. His Fagin is a loving, protective, rascally father figure to the boys. His final number, “Reviewing the Situation,” in which the actor stands on the vast stage alone contemplating his later years is poignant. Varney’s Fagin is surprisingly vulnerable but that is why the audience adores him.
Ben Layman and Elena DeSiervo are delightful as Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, respectively. They provide much of the comedy in the show and work very well together. Layman cuts an imposing figure on stage, who intimidates the boys but is unable to squash their spirits.
DeSiervo has played the lead roles in “Evita,” “My Fair Lady” and many other musicals. Her stunning soprano is wasted in the “Oliver!” role but she sets a high bar for the rest of cast to reach for.
Less effective are Brianne Beck as Nancy and Neil E. Graham as Bill Sikes. Beck, clad in a ridiculous blonde wig, seems uncomfortable in the role of the abused woman. She gives the audience no inkling of why Nancy is so devoted to Sikes. Graham portrays a hulking bully but exhibits no charm to explain Sikes’ allure.
The old adage about not working onstage with animals proved true on opening night Saturday. Layla, a 9-year-old bulldog owned by Jim and Rachel Higgins of Orland, did not have any trouble finding her light on stage. Trouble was, she lapped up the love flowing her way and planted her paws. Layla, who played Sikes’ dog Bullseye, literally had to be dragged off the stage twice. The second time, toward the end of the second act, broke the cast’s rhythm and they stumbled a bit until Varney’s solo got everyone back on track. Maybe this dog who so loves the spotlight should stay on stage until the blackouts and then be dragged into the wings.
The technical work with scenic design by Tricia Hobbs and lighting design by Scout Hough, along with Kevin Koski’s costumes give “Oliver!” a dingy, dirty look that keeps the show rooted in Dickens’ grim London. The band, hidden behind a curtain on stage and under a portion of the set, perfectly performed the complex score under the direction of Phil Burns.
The real triumph of “Oliver” is the young ensemble that portray up Fagin’s thieving boys, especially Spreng and Andrew Barrett as the Artful Dodger. They work beautifully together like a well-oiled machine. All have been part of PTC’s young academy workshops. They are poised, professional and comfortable on stage because of that and the show benefits greatly from the skills they’ve honed in that program.
While “Oliver!” is not a traditional Christmas show, PTC’s charming production will put even the most devoted Scrooge in the holiday spirit.
“Oliver!” runs through Dec. 24. For tickets, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.