The Artful Dodger takes Oliver under his wing

By Philip Pearce

PACIFIC REPERTORY Theatre has just opened a new production of Lionel Bart’s delightful Oliver! It’s a show that turns 55 this year, but still attracts audiences and wins hearts, as an opening night crowd of family and fans proved last Saturday at the Golden Bough.

On stage, a big cast of experienced troupers and school-aged trainees were obviously having a whale of a time. There was broad comedy and heavy emotion for principal singers and actors in a script that adroitly plays up the charm and soft pedals the horror of Dickens’ melodramatic novel.

This version offers a small and appealing Oliver played by Sam Scattini, a gifted seventh-grader who alternates the role with her fellow Santa Catalina classmate Andrew Mansour. There’s a crafty but charming Fagin, a part that by now fits the talented Michael Jacobs like a purloined glove. There’s Stefanie Kitty Bloch belting out exuberance and heartbreak with power and commitment in the role of the doomed slum queen Nancy.

Director Stephen Moorer seems to have aimed at high energy and clearly defined characters and situations. Purists may possibly balk at the way he allows John G. Bridges and Jill Miller to turn “I Shall Scream” from wry social satire into a piece of predictable raunchy knockabout comedy. But the sequence is then followed by Bridges’ clear and powerful “Boy for Sale” as he peddles Oliver like a piece of merchandise through the shadowy streets of London.

There’s never any question about what characters are saying and singing. They’ve got mics that work perfectly. Saturday’s performance was the only time I can remember, in the handful of Oliver! productions I’ve seen before, that I could catch all of Lionel Bart’s dialogue and lyrics.

But that vocal clarity was sometimes gained at the cost of some valuable shades of meaning and contrast. Bart’s book and music artfully blend explosions of excitement in the streets and pubs of Victorian London with quieter moments of pathos or reflective happiness. But the mics on opening night all seemed to be tuned to one sound level – loud.

It worked wonderfully well when a workhouse-load of hungry boys opened the show singing the praises of “Food!”, in many ways the most successful number of the evening. And the amplification was just right when Arick Arzadon’s perky Artful Dodger assured Oliver he could consider himself at home in Fagin’s den of junior pickpockets. It suited the horseplay of “I’d Do Anything” and the rowdy beer-soaked shenanigans of “Oom-pah-pah!.”

But what about “Where Is Love?“ It’s the show’s main ballad. It sets the mood for Oliver’s wistful search for “someone who I can mean something to.” Sam Scattini sang the number accurately but her recorded accompaniment was so strident, piercing and relentless that she had no choice but to belt it out like some Ethel Merman showstopper.

“Who Will Buy?” also lost out. It’s Bart’s lovely fugue mixing the street cries of London flower and produce hucksters. It needs to start quietly with Megan Root‘s lone flower-seller asking “Who Will Buy My Sweet Red Roses?” then spread gradually to other solo or small group singers and finally explode in a burst of joy shared by everybody on stage. That didn’t happen. Not with the pulsing pressure of the loud sound track. The voices were clear, but what they sang sounded more like harsh rivalry than a blissful blend of shared enjoyment.

There was lots of energy and enthusiasm. Dare I hope that the single-level sound mix gets tweaked? It could turn this from a satisfactory Oliver! into a memorable one.