By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

It’s not often that a stage musical has the enduring popularity that is enjoyed by Lionel Bart’s award-winning “Oliver” that opened in London ’s West End in 1960.

Its continuing success, in large part, is due to Lionel Bart’s sixteen songs with soaring melodies and believable lyrics that touch on every emotion. He also wrote the timeless libretto based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” It has the distinction of being the first successful musical adaptation of a Dickens novel.

Although the story is riddled with dark themes, including orphans in distress and unsavory adults, it also has humorous and jubilant songs liberally sprinkled throughout with as many kind-hearted gentle folks and engaging rambunctious children as there are in the audience. It’s a high-spirited experience for all within the historic walls of the Ivoryton Playhouse.

The voices in the choral numbers are good and plenty in this ambitious production. “Consider Yourself,” “Who Will Buy,” and “Oom Pah Pah” stand out as well-sung and played with more gusto than the rest of the musical. “Who Will Buy” especially showcases some excellent solo spots by the flower seller, milkmaid, strawberry woman and knife-sharpener as they ply their wares in old London and warm hearts with their pleasing voices.

The Widow Corney, a villain of the workhouse, is delightfully played with just enough comic relief by the talented Maureen Pollard, who has a clear resonant voice and does justice to her song “I Shall Scream.”

Neal Mayers’ Fagin is the standout performance of this production. He not only makes the despicable Fagin engaging, but he sings with superb enunciation and each note is pitch perfect. Fagin is a nasty piece of business, but Mr. Mayers makes the manipulative criminal a likeable one. He ably fills the shoes of all the previous talented actors who have played Fagin on the West End and Broadway stages.

TJ Mannix did so well as the arch villain Bill Sykes that he elicited boos as well as cheers at the curtain call. The bad guy you just love to hate.

And Tyler Felson as Oliver sings his first solo number, “Where Is Love” with a sweetness that captures this orphan boy’s longing for affection. He’s got the audience in the palm of his hand from then on.

Cully Long deserves special mention for his skillful and creative scenic design. It captures the time and place of this Dickensian-era story. He also incorporates the necessary spaces so performers can easily move through this action-filled story without bumping into anyone or anything along the way.

In its current form, “Oliver” should do very well with families with children and school groups. It could serve well as an introduction to musical theater for youngsters who will identify with the child actors and feel sympathy for the make-believe orphans onstage.

Lionel Bart’s songs are familiar, and more than once during the performance a child in the audience would say out loud, “I love that song.” We felt the same way, but waited until we were out of the theater to sing all the way home, and then some.

If you are in London , any time of the year, you can visit one of the atmospheric places that Dickens used in “Oliver Twist.” As we were strolling with friends on Butler ’s Wharf along the Thames River in the shadow of the Tower Bridge , one mate pointed out the luxury flats that were being constructed in the abandoned old stone tea and spice warehouses. “This is the spot where Nancy and Bill Sykes had their dramatic confrontation,” he whispered conspiratorially. It occurred to us that the Dickens story is so ingrained in the minds of the public that it’s as if his characters actually existed.

If you aren’t going to Dickens’ London , any time soon, you can still enjoy the thrill of this classic story by taking the whole family to see this major staging of “Oliver.”

If you go…

WHAT: “Oliver”
WHEN: Through Sept. 2, 2012
WHERE: Ivoryton Playhouse,
103 Main Street , Ivoryton , Conn.
TICKET PRICES: Adult, $40;
Senior, $35; Student, $20; Child, $15
BY PHONE; 860-787-7318
ONLINE: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org

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“OLIVER!” WELCOMES SHOUTS FOR MORE, PLEASE, IN IVORYTON
BONNIE GOLDBERG  8/16/12

When a scruffy, dirty-faced ragamuffin of an orphan has the audacity to ask, politely, for another bowl of gruel, his reward is to be booted out of his pitiful workhouse home and sold by Mr. Bumble (Michael Cartwright) and his soon-to-be wife the Widow Corney (Maureen Pollard).  The lad finds himself in the employ of a Mr. Sowerberry (Robert Boardman) and his sour wife (Tara Michelle Gesling), the owners of a funeral parlor and made to be a child mourner following the caskets through the streets.

Have no fear, for the lad in question, one resourceful Oliver Twist, soon runs away and lands, for better or worse, in a den of enterprising thieves.  The Ivoryton Playhouse will be picking your pockets and plucking your heartstrings as it presents “Oliver!” with music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart, based on the Charles Dickens’ story until Sunday, September 2.

Set in England in the 1830’s, Dickens wanted to portray the sad fate of youngsters forced to earn a living in deplorable conditions, hoping to change the child labor laws.

Tyler Felson’s Oliver is adorable and is likely to steal your heart as well as your pocketbook.  When he flees the funeral parlor, he is rescued by a clever lad the Artful Dodger (Nathan J. Russo) who introduces him to gang of thieves led by an enterprising and sinisterly charming Neal Mayer as Fagin who teaches Oliver how to “pick a pretty pocket or two.”

In Fagin’s den, Oliver meets the kind- hearted Nancy , a lovely Kimberly Morgan, and her evil hearted companion Bill Sykes, a terrifying T. J. Mannix who instills fear in all who cross his path.  The troupe of young thieves takes Oliver in but he is soon caught in the act and his fate bounces around like a ping-pong ball in a fast game of table tennis. A compassionate Mr. Brownlow (Larry Lewis) gives Oliver a second chance but the long dark shadow of Bill Sykes looms large.

Thanks to an energetic and talented cast our spunky hero overcomes all obstacles, buying himself a beautiful morning and a wonderful life. R. Bruce Connolly does a fine job “reviewing the situation” with a crafty and clever hand as director. Be aware that there are many dark moments that may be inappropriate for young children.

For tickets ( $40 adults, $35 seniors, $20 students and $15 children), call the Playhouse at 860-767-7318 or visit the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton. On Wednesdays August 15, 22 and 29, Food, Glorious Food will be featured before the performance.  Come early for music, food and wine in the tent.

Join Oliver Twist in a London of more than a century and a half ago as he learns the fine art of being a thief from the master himself, Fagin, and his right hand boy The Artful Dodger.

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