March 3, 1995 in Features, Seven

It’s Clear, You’re, Going To Enjoy Tale Of ‘Oliver’

Jim Kershner Staff Writer

Granted, this does not seem the stuff of cheery musical comedy: Kid, mistreated in orphanage, ends up on street, joins criminal gang, learns to steal, lives happily ever after.

Somehow, “Oliver!” pulls it off, and the proof is in the show’s longevity. This British musical has been a staple of dinner theater, summer stock and touring shows since it moved from London to Broadway in 1963.

“One of the most impressive British products to be imported here since the first RollsRoyce,” said New York Daily News critic John Chapman when the show first opened.

The present national tour arrives here Monday for a five-show run.

Credit for the show’s appeal must be shared equally between Charles Dickens and Lionel Bart. The plot is based on “Oliver Twist,” which is one of Dickens’ minor classics (minor only in terms of heft).

Dickens had a genius for combining realism, humor, pathos, drama and a social conscience, all in one package. A re-reading of this 1838 novel will give you renewed respect for Dickens’ overwhelming gift for portraying the London of his time, with both its injustices and its joys.

With “Oliver Twist” as a template, it’s no surprise that “Oliver!” succeeds so well in combining the gritty and the sentimental.

The rest of the credit goes to Bart, because he wrote some great songs for this show. Some have become well-known staples: “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” and “Where Is Love.” Bart also wrote two beautiful, almost ethereal ballads, “Who Will Buy?” and “As Long As He Needs Me.”

The latter is Kathy Halenda’s favorite song, but maybe she’s biased. She plays Nancy in the show, and that’s Nancy’s big show-stopping number.

“To me, that’s the song that says the most,” said Halenda.

As Nancy, she is perfectly aware of one of the dichotomies of “Oliver!” On one hand, it is a great kid’s show, featuring a whole pack of preadolescents as the heroes. On the other hand, it is starkly realistic, with moments of frightening violence. Nancy is tossed about the stage, and eventually killed by Bill Sykes.

“Sometimes, I wonder if it’s too scary for smaller children,” said Halenda. “But kids see so much of it on TV, they follow it very well. It’s appropriate for about age 4 and up.”

She said that “Oliver!” was a much bigger shock when it came out in the ‘60s, because most musicals did not deal with realism and social problems.

“Now, with a lot of shows being darker and meatier, ‘Oliver!’ is still very relevant,” she said.

The role of Oliver will be played by 12-yearold Graham Bowen, who Halenda said is a real discovery.

“It’s very difficult to find a child that young who has the stamina, vocally and physically, and who is also a good actor,” said Halenda.

They found him, like most of the other children in the cast, at the Cincinnati School of Performing Arts. It’s a demanding tour for all of them - they have to do school work during the day and perform at night. They don’t have much free time. But they still find time to be kids.

“You get nine 12-year-old boys together and it can get interesting,” said Halenda.

This tour started out with a two-month stint at Harrah’s in Atlantic City and will be on the road until April. The show travels with a sevenpiece combo and a cast of nine children and 16 adults.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: “Oliver!” Location and time: Opera House, Monday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., also at 2 p.m. Thursday Tickets: $27.50 and $29.50; $25 and $27 for the matinee

This sidebar appeared with story: “Oliver!” Location and time: Opera House, Monday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., also at 2 p.m. Thursday Tickets: $27.50 and $29.50; $25 and $27 for the matinee

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