One month prior to seeing the Broadway Reimagined production of Oliver!, I and other Critical Review writers participated in a dance workshop with Oliver! choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell. His energy filled the whole room; the workshop made me want to take up dance again. As it turned out, so did Oliver!.
For those who are unfamiliar with the play, Broadway’s Oliver! is based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, a novel about a hopeful orphan trying to make his way in the backstreets of London. Broadway Reimagined brings steampunk to Dickens’ story in a startling lack of clash. Upstage center hovers a giant clock face; the set’s walls and overhangs are made of metal–bridges, stairways, odd bits and gears that pop in and out and swing around. Costumes follow this genre, mixing corsets and caps with clocks and cogs. The steampunk aesthetic lights up the stage. It’s a good balance, a new twist that doesn’t detract from the “old” story.
Dark and light swirl together in Oliver! to form many different shades of gray. Each character must live in a moral gray area in order to survive. This is especially apparent in Bradley Greenwald’s character, the conniving Fagin. Characters’ moods are mirrored by subtle light and set changes. Ferrell’s choreography flows with the characters’ emotions in every musical number, natural yet impressive. Some members of the ensemble did not hold as much talent in singing as in dancing, although to their credit, I am not sure how they breathed at all in the first place when doing both at the same time (some of them, in corsets).
From the get-go, the entire ensemble of Oliver! is all-in. Their energy is infectious. A performance that stands out in particular is that of Angela Steele, whom I first noticed when she tottered onstage as the sour-voiced undertakers’ daughter Charlotte, looking like a steampunk’d mix of Cruella de Vil and a bright-red praying mantis. The amount of detailed distinction between each one of her characters made me applaud her performance of all of them, despite the fact that in relative total she had very few lines.
The cast is divided near equally between those of official “adult” status and those under 18. I would like to giveOliver! oodles of kudos for not giving the kids less stage responsibility or opportunity than the adults, and for not using child actors to create the “aww” effect at any point, something that personally makes me cringe every time I see it in theatre. In fact, Oliver! does not need to overuse any production effect to garner audience attention: the show is a perfect balance.
If you are looking for a fluffy show about happy children, Oliver! is not for you. This show brings out the whole spectrum of emotions and lays them down on the table alongside a few clockwork mechanisms, a peck of pickpockets, and a little bit of magic.