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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stage Review:

Non-Equity 'OLIVER!' Rousing, But is this the Only Way?

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What a fine show "Oliver!" is. That reminder is the chief attraction of the non-Equity tour that opened Tuesday for a week at the Benedum. Lionel Bart's 1960 score and lyrics are robust, lively and, on occasion, sweet, and his book is as rich as what he can squeeze in of the extraordinary riches of Dickens' novel.

The score is also deservedly memorable, for which we can thank the many revivals, but mainly the popular 1968 movie. But the movie's cuteness may make us forget how dark the material can be, and truth to that darkness is another positive for this tour, directed by Graham Gill, based on Cameron Mackintosh's recent London revival.

The sets are also fine. And most important, the kids are great, including the sweet-voiced Ryan Tutton as Oliver and sprightly Colin Bates as the Artful Dodger.

But as to the adult performances, they range from capable downward. Some acquit themselves honorably. Mark McCracken's tall, youthful Fagin has a quirky charm, though without the character's ethnicity and covert ferocity. Renata Renee Wilson's Nancy is feisty, with sparkling eyes, and David George and Gwen Eyster have cartoony fun as the Bumbles.

You wouldn't call them Broadway-level performances, but they have vigor and don't embarrass -- except for Nancy's awful accent. In that, she's no worse than most of the others. You expect uncertainty of accent with an American cast doing a mix of Cockney and refined British, and I rarely complain about it, but the cacophony here is below professional.

The show starts strongly, with its best asset, the kids, singing "Food, Glorious Food" and "Oliver!" Then the set -- another asset, with substantial rough side staircases framing a changing array of drops, cut-outs and set pieces, including a distant St. Paul's -- segues atmospherically to accompany Oliver to undertaker Sowerberry and then Fagin's lair.

It is also to the production's credit that it puts a lot of people on stage -- not just the baker's dozen of Fagin's gang, but a large, energetic ensemble, mainly young, that brings the total of bodies to about 40. That's the advantage of a non-Equity tour: cheap labor.

The production's other cost-cutting is in the orchestra. Last week, "The Producers," admittedly a top-of-the-line tour and with a cast of just 22 (though seeming more), put 23 live musicians in the pit. "Oliver!" makes do with eight, plus a keyboard-and-computer contraption called a Sinfonia. (The musicians union was distributing protesting leaflets outside.)

I'd call the resulting musical sound a little bland and flat, as though some of it were recorded.

But I don't claim to have the most educated musical ear. With all the amplification today, it's hard to be sure what's real, and of course knowing about the Sinfonia in advance may have prejudiced me.

But that's my larger point. What we treasure about live theater is its life. Theater is an imaginative art that is also real -- real people in the same space as the audience.

Knowing that much of the music was computerized, I found myself doubting the voices, too: Was that chorus electronically enhanced? Was that kid miming to a recorded voice-over?

This is a slippery slope. Movies are starting to do away with live actors, but if theater isn't live, what's its point? Producers risk a lot when they play with an audience's trust.

"But this is the only way such a big show can afford to tour," claim the producers. "This is the only way you're going to get to see 'Oliver!' except in community theaters or high schools."

Not in Pittsburgh. The irony of this non-Equity production is that it has prevented us from seeing a better Equity production, staged right here. Pittsburgh CLO staged "Oliver!" in 1965, 1977, 1983 and 1992. As that pattern shows, it would have done it again by now, except that Mackintosh has had the rights sewed up for his London production and subsequent, scaled-down tour. So here it is, 15 months into its tour, still preventing Equity productions, making its "this is the only way" claim a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And CLO would do it better. The last time it did "Oliver!" Fagin and Nancy were Jon Cypher and Donna Murphy -- 'nuff said! Pittsburgh Musical Theater has been dying to get the rights, too. Like the CLO, it has a fine cadre of performing kids, and you could come up with a better overall cast using local Equity actors.

Of course, you may say that it's not fair to measure this show against something that it's not.


(Post-Gazette drama critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.)





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