Two decades before the British invasion of the 1980s, which transformed Broadway into an American “West End” with shows like Cats, Les Miz, Phantom, and Miss Saigon, a triple-threat British writer/composer/lyricist named Lionel Bart created a musical which may well outlive all of the above, a show by the name of Oliver.

As I sat watching FCLO Music Theatre’s production of the Charles Dickens classic (the third I have seen over the past four years), I couldn’t help wondering if there ever been a better British musical on Broadway, for Oliver seems to me to be the perfect mix of music, drama, dance, laughter, and plot twists (no pun intended). We have Dickens to thank for the latter, of course.  But it was Bart who created Oliver The Musical (as it would probably be called today), in what was to be his one and only Broadway hit, and almost his only Broadway show, if you discount a musicalization of La Strada which lasted but a single performance before closing.

Oliver is also one of the few “family” shows which doesn’t seem designed simply for families with tots in tow. It does, after all, deal with poverty, illegitimacy, crime, and murder, not quite traditional Disney fare. Yes, this is a musical which children can and do enjoy, but adults will probably appreciate it even more.

Given FCLO’s recent string of fine productions, it should come as no surprise that their Oliver is a winner in every department.

Ovation-winning director Jan Duncan and her stellar cast (an almost unheard of 40 in all) have great material to work with, and some of the most memorable songs in Broadway history, beginning with the Act 1 opener, “Food Glorious Food,” performed her by a dozen of the cutest and most talented singing/dancing children this side of the Atlantic.

Oliver is a show in which showstopping musical number follows showstopper, with scarcely time to take a breath between.  “Consider Yourself” precedes “Pick A Pocket Or Two” and then comes “It’s A Fine Life” and almost right away “I’d Do Anything,” and I’d wager that almost anyone familiar with musical theater could hum a few bars of each, prompted only by the titles.

Comic relief is provided by the macabre but funny “That’s Your Funeral,” the flirty “I Shall Scream,” and Fagin’s amusing “Reviewing The Situation.” Drama is provided by “Boy For Sale” and Bill Sykes’ scary “My Name.”

Act 2 has even more showstoppers, featuring whiz choreographer Dana Solimando’s bouncy dance steps.  There’s the music hall-themed “Oom-Pah-Pah” and the absolutely exquisite, “Who Will Buy,” with its juxtaposition of multiple melodies and one of the most joyous choruses around.

Finally, there are the pair of ballads which define the show, Oliver’s touching “Where Is Love?” and Nancy’s oft-oft-oft-recorded “As Long As He Needs Me.”

All this, plus Charles Dickens’ tale of the lonely orphan who finds love and family, though not until after having experienced the miseries of an orphanage, being sold to an undertaker, and becoming part of a gang of pintsized pickpockets.

What’s not to love in Oliver?


David Allen Jones is Fagin, in an all around excellent performance, the Broadway vet milking every comedic and poignant moment from the role. Richard Kinsey is a truly creepy Bill Sykes, singing “My Name” with a voice to bring shivers and shudders.  Rick Cox and Monica Smith have the pleasure of playing the oh so Dickensian Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Carney, and they duet a delightful “I Shall   Scream.” As Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, Dink O’Neal and Jean Kauffman likewise come straight out of a Victorian illustration for the original Oliver Twist, and O’Neal, in his 9th Oliver, has great fun as Oliver’s “physician heal thyself” doctor.  Teenage Garret Bales has the perfect character face to play a very funny Noah Claypool, Aubrey Elson is an absolutely lovely Bet, and Christopher Spencer is a fine Mr. Brownlow.  Marilyn Beckett (rose seller), Alex Edlefsen (long song seller), Deidre Haren (strawberry seller), Barrie Linberg (milk maid), and Jordan Miller (knife grinder) lend their fine voices to “Who Will Buy.”

As Nancy, L.A. treasure Bets Malone adds yet another role to her lengthy resume. She’s been Rizzo in Grease, Hildy in On The Town, Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls, Eva in Evita, Mother in Ragtime, Martha in The Secret Garden, most recently Natalie in All Shook Up and (for the past 18 months) Suzy in The Marvelous Wonderettes—and those are just the shows I’ve seen her in. Malone is an absolutely wonderful Nancy, brassy yet tender and heartrending, and her signature voice makes it seem as if “As Long As He Needs Me” is being heard for the very first time.

Finally, there are the two absolutely sensational child leads, Anthony Skillman as Oliver and Chase Del Rey as The Artful Dodger. Skillman sings “Where Is Love?” like it’s never been done before, with a high register belt that seems American Idol ready. Del Rey is especially effective here because unlike most Dodgers, the young actor is only 11 (the same age as Oliver) and the same height as Skillman. Besides being one heck of a talented performer, Del Rey as Dodger is the perfect alter ego for Oliver, the tough street urchin opposite the still somehow sheltered orphan, the boy Oliver might have been had their circumstances been reversed.

As always in an FCLO show, the entire cast deserves mention. The workhouse boys/boys of Fagin’s gang are Michael William Arnold, Connor J. Berkompas (also appearing as Charlie Bates), Lauren Desloge, Mark Desmond, Shea Hudson Durazzo, Elliot Kang, Julian Kang, Connor Kerley, Austin Kiloh, Paul Arthur Smith, Carter Thomas, and Chase Thomas. The excellent ensemble is made up of Larry Creagan (The Chairman), Steve A. Edlund, Brad Fitzgerald, Laura M. Hathaway, Colette Peters, Kim Peterson (Mrs. Bedwin), TJ Mundy-Punchard, Amy Sterling (Charlotte), and Sheri Vasquez.  The multi-talented Paul Romero, Jr. not only appears in the ensemble but serves as assistant choreographer and dance captain.

Musical director Lee Kreter conducts the 11-piece orchestra, which sounds like double the number. The first-rate design team is made up of Dwight Richard Odle (scenic adaptation and additional design), Christina L. Munich (lighting designer), Ambra Wakefield (costumer), and Terry Hanrahan (set decoration).

Like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s oeuvre, Oliver has become a musical theater staple, and with good reason.  It is a show in which everything comes together to make magic, and FCLO’s production makes for a magical evening of musical theater indeed.

Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave, Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
May 10, 2008
Photos: Kurt Jarrard

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