Having just reviewed Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s newest production of Oliver in October, this was the first line popped into my head when I first heard the news that this season Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater (PICT) is also doing a stage production based on this timeless story by the great novelist Charles Dickens. However, this specific play adaption, originally conceived and written by PICT’s current Artistic Director Mr. Alan Stanford for the Gate Theater in Dublin about a decade ago, promises to take the Pittsburgh audience on a rather darker path than the musical version that we are all familiar with. So, naturally as excited as I was about this rare opportunity to see two completely different executions of the same story back to back, I also couldn’t help but to ask, “for a story that works so perfectly well as a musical, does it still make sense to do a play version?”
First published around 1837, Oliver Twist was Dickens’ second novel portraying the rampant poverty and miserable lifestyles of orphans and criminals under the Parish administration in London in the mid-nineteenth century. But different from Lionel Bart’s adaption full of humorous dialogues and exhilarating dance numbers, this play will give you a more authentic taste of cruelty and violence presented in Dickens’ original literature and a more in-depth look into each character’s internal struggle and invincible fate. From the very first scene to the last monologue, the weight of “death” and “redemption” has filled the stage with a thickening atmosphere. And the actors’ performances, too, come with different colors and dimensions that will put you on the edge of your seat.
In contrast to PMT’s musical production, the young actors in this show turned out to be the biggest stars of the night. Title role was played so sweetly by Will Sendera, whose innocence and purity will win audience’s sympathy in a heartbeat. Simon Colker gives Artful Dodger a sharp image with a sophisticated touch that will make you think there are indeed great potentials in this character (and the actor). The rest of the workhouse boys/pickpocket gang ensemble all did a fantastic job of setting up the scenes that will truly reflect the unfair treatment these orphans receive in the story. One of my favorite scenes is in the beginning right after Oliver got introduced to the workhouse people, where the tension between the actors on stage proves that young talents can too, do darkness.
But again, if you really know the premise of Oliver Twist, you will know that this story is not really about Oliver Twist, or any other kids, but about the adult characters and how their lives, fates, and decisions are affected by those kids. David Cabot’s Mr. Bumble and Bridget Connors’ Mrs. Corney are the comedic duo of the show. Karen Baum’s Nancy eventually became the most interesting character in the entire play, as you get to see how this role evolves over the course of the show and hence bringing out the “redemption” aspect of the story. Ms. Baum’s intricate performance highlighted the soft and “light” side of this character perfectly. And paring with Tony Bingham’s ruthless Bill Sykes, the drama is all over the place in the second Act.
Finally, there is Fagin, played masterfully by James Fitzgerald. In this adaption the presentation of Fagin is much more darker and crueler than the “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” Fagin in the musical version. And his internal struggle is far more interesting to explore as the fate of the character ends on a completely different page compared to the musical version. Mr. Fitzgerald’s portrayal of this renowned pickpocket gang leader naturally brings out all of the complicated flavor in between Dickens’ lines in the original book. His spine-chilling delivery of the last monologue was easily one of the best moments of the night.
Directing his own writing, Mr. Alan Stanford gave this adaption a more realistic feeling; meaning that all the characters are more colorful and we no longer only want to care about Oliver or Fagin’s fate. Due to the nature of the development of the plot and building up the drama, the tension in the first Act was clearly not as strong as in the second Act; some scenes from Act I eventually felt dragging or melodramatic. But the momentum in Act II is so non-stop that the climax moment paired with the blackout precisely delivered a great twist in the end. Johnmichael Bohach’s scenic design combined with Joan Market’s costumes managed to take us back to Victorian era brilliantly with minimal but grand staging. And Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design, although sometimes distracted the tense atmosphere with light music, overall still did the trick: the snowstorm scene in the opening sequence will immediately take you out of this warm Pittsburgh winter weather, and back to the mid-nineteenth century windy London night.
So there you go, as different as it is from the musical Oliver, PICT’s newest production of Oliver Twist proved once again that as long as it’s a great story, a play adaption can also win the audience’s heart, if not provoking more interesting thoughts and discussions about all the characters. I’m sure when I say this I’m speaking for every loyal Pittsburgh theater fan, that we are all thankful PICT is still with us after such a harsh “financial winter”. And Oliver Twist might just prove to be the Christmas light we all need in this holiday season.