Like so many great Charles Dickens stories, “Oliver Twist” is primarily a portrait of the backstreets and barrooms of 19th-century London, a catalog of colorful, lovably rough-and-tumble characters with outlandish names and broad personalities. Little orphan Oliver is the wide-eyed naïf who’s gradually assimilated into a world of poverty and petty thievery, and there are moments when he nearly becomes a supporting character in his own story.
“Twist” has been adapted countless times since its 1838 publication, but the musical “Oliver!” currently being staged by Spokane Valley Summer Theatre is perhaps the most beloved. Conceived by Lionel Bart, the musical was a Broadway sensation in the ’60s and was later turned into a 1968 film that took home the Oscar for best picture. It’s reflective of a particular era of theater, in that spectacle tends to take precedence over substance, but the emotional core of Dickens’ timeless tale remains.
The show opens as a chorus of young orphans streams down from the back of the theater, placing us in a dim, drafty Victorian-era poorhouse. One of them is Oliver (played by Hudson Drake in the SVST production), who has been doomed to a future of being shuffled from one unfortunate household to another. Oliver has the gall to ask for a second helping of gruel at mealtime, which inspires the orphanage’s sexton Mr. Bumble (Mike Muzatko) to sell Oliver to the highest bidder.
Oliver is first taken in by a stuffy mortician, who forces the boy to sleep among the coffins. But he soon escapes and is eventually indoctrinated into a gang of pickpockets by teenage Jack Dawkins (Jameson Elton), known around town as the Artful Dodger. This den of thieves is overseen by the miser Fagin (Joshua Vander Plaats), and he provides the only true sense of comfort Oliver has ever experienced. He also finds a maternal figure in the Fagin gang’s sole female thief, Nancy (Caryssa Murphy), whose boyfriend, the glowering criminal Bill Sykes (Paul Villabrille), is the most feared man in London.
As is typical of musicals from half a century ago, Bart’s script is nearly wall-to-wall music, and practically all feeling is communicated through song. It’s a good thing, then, that director Yvonne A.K. Johnson has loaded her cast with solid voices: Murphy’s take on “As Long as He Needs Me,” now a pop standard, and Vander Plaats’ sonorous rendition of “Reviewing the Situation” are easily the vocal highlights of the show.
Among the show’s more upbeat numbers, standouts include the bar sing-along “Oom-Pah-Pah” and “Consider Yourself,” which begins as a jaunty two-hander between Oliver and the Dodger and gradually builds to a bustling ensemble piece. “I Shall Scream” is a throwaway comic tune (excised from the ’68 film), but it’s brought to life by Muzatko and Andrea Olsen as the widow Corney, who work themselves into such a frenzy that they request a breather from the orchestra.
Of the show’s many ballads, “Who Will Buy?” is lovingly rendered here, an intricately harmonized number expressing the hopelessness of London street vendors. And “Where Is Love?” is a deceptively difficult ballad of ever-shifting rhythms and melodies, but Drake, making his theatrical debut, pulls it off with aplomb.
I had forgotten that “Oliver!” possesses a somewhat unusual narrative construction: Its primary villain (Sikes) isn’t introduced until the second act, which robs the character of some of his impact, and it ends on a note of bittersweet reflection rather than exultation. The show also simplifies some of the darker societal themes – the gulf between social strata, child labor, London’s criminal underworld – running through Dickens’ original narrative, brushing them aside in favor of splashy production numbers.
But despite its plunge into violence in the third act, “Oliver!” effortlessly creates a sense of camaraderie between these unfortunate figures, and that translates to a camaraderie between the actors and the audience. Despite a few technical hiccups involving the wireless microphones, SVST’s “Oliver!” turns out to be infectious and bubbly enough that you’ll be leaving the theater humming the title tune.
Reviewed Friday,“Oliver!” continues through Aug. 7 at Central Valley Performing Arts Center, 821 S. Sullivan Road. Tickets are available at svsummertheatre.com.