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Oliver — Book, Music & Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore

5625 O’Donnell Street, Baltimore, MD. — Through June 6, 2010

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Give yourself a quiz. When was the first time you saw “Oliver” the musical? I took an informal survey today and several said during their high school years in the 80’s and 90’s, and many of us saw it before that. It may surprise readers to know that the musical premiered in America in 1962, two years after its London debut. Why is this important? For a couple of reasons: Historically, the musical theater is America’s gift to the world’s stage. We birthed musical theater but OLIVER began in England. A real first for the Brits! Also it initially went to the west coast of the USA not the east coast, and defied traditional bonanzas on Broadway. All this merely leads to the fact that OLIVER is distinctive in origin, and new generations are being introduced to this time honored work. We all can hum ”Food, Glorious Food” or “Where is Love” or “Consider Yourself…” but we have forgotten the context, the pathos and the humor that frames the music – THE PLAY- that is now a solid part of our culture’s musical lexicon.

I have not, in the past, had good luck in finding excellent productions at “Dinner Theatres;” but I am interested in young people on stage and wanted to check out the quality and the significance of a young cast. I have to say I was not prepared for the quality of this performance and its superb players. Toby’s had been a successful venue in Columbia Maryland for years and expanded to its Baltimore location in 2006. The theater is mounted on stage at the renovated Best Western Hotel in Southeast Baltimore at the Travel Plaza between Canton and Dundalk. I was carefully optimistic when I entered but not convinced that I would see professional work. OLIVER is well crafted. nicely choreographed, uses live musicians, and the technical work is excellent. I am an audio freak and if the technical is off, I’m out of there. Happily the lighting, and all things mechanical were a pleasure to behold. Sets can compete with any professional venue and costumes as well. If I sound surprised, it is because I am.

Oliver was played by a ten-year old boy, John Morrison. He alternates with another actor I wish I’d seen (TJ Langston,) but heard was just as wonderful. Before the show I asked to interview young John Morrison before he assumed character to see how he accessed his part. He told me it was an emotional role for him and he had to be “happy and sad” at different times. (Don’t you wish adult actors were that clear?) He thought that times were hard in those days and that probably was why Charles Dickens wrote the book. He had read it by the way and was worried that it could actually happen in life. I believe this was an important insight because the believability of character is taken for granted in seasoned performers, but dismissed perhaps in the younger. This is, after all, a musical, so all psychological action is geared to launch the songs. We accept this as the formula and the pattern of the Book, and therefore the voices better be good or the libretto cannot make up for it.

John Morrison’s rendering of solo pieces is impressive, as is his wholeheartedness when singing with the chorus. The voice range is fine for a young boy who is probably going to grow to be a tenor and now can reach soprano when he needs a note. We’ll have to check him out in 5 years. Morrison, as well as the others, can dance spritely and he moves with the complexity called for. Frankly, he is lovable.

The staging of OLIVER followed the Broadway original exactly. It opens on a workhouse with the poor orphans peering from behind bars. The plot takes off when Oliver pleads, “Please Sir, I want more.” This marks him as a scoundrel and he is sold off to an undertaker by the ruthless Mr. Bumble (Andrew Horn.) This terrifying place leads him to run and be found by the Artful Dodger (Zachery McKinney /alternating with Aviad Bernstein,) who brings him to Fagin, King of the pickpockets (David Bosley Reynolds.) As Oliver is sent out the next day on his first mission of thievery, he’s rounded up by police. He finds himself, through the mercy of the law, in the home of the man he stole from and for a minute all looks too good to be true, and it is. The criminal element finds him as soon as he is out of the dwelling; and he’s seized and captured. Let us rest in the belief that there are good thieves and bad ones and the good ones restore Oliver to his rightful place in Act 2. This is all with much chicanery and many theatrical contrivances. Go see it and fill in the blanks. That is the story but the glue of the piece is the rendition of classic musical numbers including “Reviewing The Situation” (“Fagin”) and “As Long As He Needs Me” (“Nancy” played by Maria Egler.) OLIVER, with its 19 musical pieces, has been added to the annals of theater history, and I can say the songs were well executed at Toby’s. The voices are those of professionals. The young Oliver (John Morrison) is presaged to find many good roles along his starpricked way. I recommend this production. Playing through June 6. 410-649-1660.

Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and poet. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress for public radio.

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