A hard knock life

Trinity Rep's rousing 'Oliver!'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  February 26, 2014

 0228_Theater_Oli_top.jpg
A HELPING HAND Warren and Peters. [Photo by Mark Turek]

The musical Oliver! certainly earns its exclamation point, especially as pumped up in this lively Trinity Repertory Company foray (through March 30). One suspects Charles Dickens would approve of this adaptation of Oliver Twist, his 1838 novel about a spunky orphan who runs away from a workhouse.

In addition to truth in punctuation, we get a roller coaster ride of a production, directed and choreographed by Trinity alumnus Richard Jenkins, on hiatus from Hollywood, and his wife Sharon Jenkins.

What’s remarkable about this musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart, is how physicalized the storytelling is, not just in songs and dance but in how actors inhabit the persons they portray. As befits a melodrama, you can tell the miscreants from the nabobs by whether their lips are curled or pursed.

We first see Oliver anonymous among many orphans (well, nine) in the sort of workhouse that served as an orphanage in early 19th-century England, and which reflects Dickens’s own dire circumstances as an impoverished boy. After the hungry children sing the pathetic celebration “Food, Glorious Food,” Oliver (Phineas Peters) singles himself out as different by being the only one to toddle up with his bowl and ask for more gruel. Outrageous ingrate. The workhouse taskmaster, Mr. Bumble (Tom Gleadow), tries to peddle him in the street (“Boy for Sale”) and ends up apprenticing him to an undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (Erick Pinnick). Sent to sleep under a coffin, he sings the poignant “Where Is Love?” Poor Oliver.

But now the fun begins — or at least the mischief. After beating up a bullying servant for insulting his mother, Oliver escapes and spends a foot-sore week walking the 60 miles to London. Right away he runs into the Artful Dodger (Noah Parets), a ragged but foppish boy wearing a top hat and chipper disposition. Parets does a fine job establishing the outgoing character who sings “Consider Yourself,” welcoming Oliver into the “family” of Fagin (Stephen Berenson) and the street urchins who work for him as pickpockets. Berenson is entertaining at his physical characterizing, a hunched and sneering miser — much later, speak-singing “Reviewing the Situation,” he rivets our attention to a maundering meditation on character change. Quite the challenge.

Speaking of impressive acting, Rachael Warren is stunning as Nancy, the girlfriend of scary burglar Bill Sikes (Timothy John Smith) who takes a motherly liking to Oliver. Warren wows us with hell-bent plunges into each of two numbers that are polar opposites, mood-wise. “It’s a Fine Life,” in which the ensemble joins in at a tavern, is full of gin-soaked giddiness that masks the misery they are drowning. “As Long As He Needs Me” is a love song clinging to the timeless hope of mistreated women. Wow indeed.

Big, bad Sikes, with his crown-to-chin pink knife scar, is as much a metaphor as an actual person, wordless and menacing when we first see him, backlit and faceless. When he sings “My Name” (“Strong men tremble when they hear it!/They’ve got cause enough to fear it!”), we’re forgiven for gulping and sinking lower in our seats. Eventually Sikes is a hulking threat to Oliver as well, as we all but hear the thump-thump of the Jaws theme.

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