“Consider yourself, at home! Consider yourself, one of the family!”
As the young actors and actresses sing and dance away on Byham Theater’s stage in the fabulous tunes of Lionel Bart’s timeless score, Pittsburgh Musical Theater (PMT) opened its 2015-2016 “Magnificent Movie Musicals” season with a West End and Broadway classic, Oliver.
Based upon Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, this musical is centered on an orphan boy, Oliver, who was sold from a workhouse into an apprenticeship with an undertaker, and later escaped to London and met a gang of juvenile pickpockets. Originally premiered in the West End in 1960, over the years it has had numerous successful runs and countless revivals in both UK and US. With music, lyrics, and a book by Lionel Bart, Oliver is often known as the musical that “everyone in England at some point played some part in”. For Pittsburgh audience, this specific production marked another annual collaboration between PMT’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory and the CAPA Symphony Orchestra.
With performing arts students and professional artists from over five counties and twenty-five schools, this production got a cast of 65 actors with around 70 musicians playing in the orchestra pit. And because of the nature of the story, most of the members of the ensemble are kids and young students. However, the overall delivery of the show and the quality of the production truly proves that these youthful artists are indeed the start of tomorrow! The title role is played by Benjamin Godley Fisher, who sings purely with a sweet and courageous portrait that will melt audiences’ hearts in a blink with his solo number “Where is Love”.
But when we are talking about the actors of the show, we also have to talk about those older characters played by adult artists. Sky Bennett’s Mr. Bumble was genuinely funny. And his on stage “romantic” dynamic with Widow Corney, played by Mia Schmidtetter, didn’t warm up to the audience until the second Act but, was eventually the biggest winner of all the laughter. Rush Hodgin’s Bill Sikes is terrifyingly scary and intimidating, if not too dark for a children story. And the biggest surprise of the night is Sabrina Picciani, who played the wicked but lovely and loyal Nancy with a great energy and an amazing strength. Her first big number with the cast, “It’s a Fine Life”, will put you on the edge of your seat. And her moving delivery of the solo number “As Long As He needs Me” had a Les Miserable-style emotional moment that eventually became one of the highlights of the night.
And of course, there is Fagin, the leader of the pickpocket gang and the center of the moral discussion of the entire show. This iconic character to Oliver is like the witch in Into the Woods, every actor who’s played it always had their own take that would add another color to the overall storytelling. In this production, Fagin was played by Nathan Sudie. Although Mr. Sudie didn’t exactly bring out the “redemption dilemma” side of the story, his performance was still the most memorable of the night. His “Reviewing the Situation” was my personal favorite, with the famous violin solo music motif accompanied beautifully by the CAPA Symphony Orchestra’s musician.
Conducted by David Knapp, the CAPA Symphony Orchestra was probably the biggest attraction of this production, if not sometimes even shadowing what’s happening on stage. The sound quality of the entire orchestra was stunningly gorgeous and definitely brought out the essence of Bart’s classic score and Eric Roger’s brilliant orchestration.
With a massive cast consisting mostly of kids, the staging of the show is no easy pie. Director and Choreographer Lisa Elliott’s rather neutral touch of the narration (not too dark, but also not too happy and fairy tale like) was understandable and works well for the production. Although it did take some time to warm up to the performance, the choreography for those big numbers like “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy” was still very exciting and delivered the theatrical moment!
As always in Byham Theater, the tech aspect of the show was usually challenging. Besides occasional sound issues, the transitional of the volume and the balance between stage and orchestra also broke the tension at the beginning. However, Kim Brown’s costume designs with Spotlight Costumes will make you forget about all these distractions soon enough. The Victorian feeling of the garments were on point and eye-catching, and with Jonathan T. Sage’s simple but brilliant scenic design, all the magic of the show was never lost.
Oliver tells a dark story but comes with a heart-warming score. The expressiveness of the story on stage was fairly emotional. But the energy and passion of every student and artist in this production truly deserves our unquestionable applause!
Presented by Pittsburgh Music Theater
Directed and Choreographed by Lisa Elliot
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Music Directed by James Andrzej Rushin
Designed by Amber Kocher(props), Kim Brown(costumes), Jonathan T. Sage(scenery), Todd Nonn(lighting), and Greg Brooks(sound).
Special Thanks to Pittsburgh Musical Theater for the complimentary press tickets. For more information about their season productions and ticketing, check out their website
Performance Date: Thursday, October 22, 2015