IF YOU GO
Where: The Youngstown Playhouse
When: Weekends April 8-17 (7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays)
Tickets: Call 330-788-8739.
Also: Patrons who bring a nonperishable item to donate to the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley will be entered in a drawing to win a season pass for the 2011-12 season.
Literary purists (aka snobs) have been crying foul ever since “Oliver!” opened in London’s West End 50-plus years ago. Was Lionel Bart’s broad, brassy musical version of (Charles) Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” a coarse vulgarization of the novel, or — like countless iterations of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — an affectionate homage to its source material? Not even the six Oscars won by the 1968 movie version could stifle the debate that’s still raging among Dickensian diehards.
The Youngstown Playhouse production of “Oliver!” that opened to an SRO crowd Friday night adds precious little to the Dickens versus Bart discourse. What it does prove is that large-scale, brand-name musicals (especially ones that feature plenty of juvenile actors) remain cash cows in community theater circles. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that.
Directed by Donna Downie and featuring such dependable musical theater talents as David Jendre (Fagin) and Brandy Johanntges (Nancy), the YP “Oliver!” is pretty much a “you-get-what-you-paid-for” proposition. Spectacle aplenty (courtesy of Jim Lybarger and Cheri Stebner’s typically first-rate Playhouse set and costume design)? Check. Lots of cute tykes, anchored by the immensely gifted Donny Wolford in the title role, singing and dancing their little hearts out? Check. Familiar tunes (“Who Will Buy?,” “Food Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” etc.) endlessly reprised? Check.
But except for Johann- tges, the cast isn’t as vocally strong as Bart’s (mostly terrific) score demands; Kaitlyn Cook’s workmanlike choreography seems more rote than inspired; the miking and spotlight work are hit-and-miss; and some of the Cockney accents are so dodgy that subtitles might have been a good idea.
Many of the show’s central flaws seem built into the material, however. A few of the songs (“I Shall Scream” and “That’s Your Funeral” in particular) are disposable filler. And “Oliver!”—the stage version anyway — seems to move from plot point A to Z with precious little nuance or character development to provide context/connective tissue between the big production numbers. No wonder Dickens enthusiasts have balked.
Yet like “Grease” or “Annie,” “Oliver!” remains an essentially critic-proof beast. Even a mediocre production can cast a formidable spell. If Downie’s “Oliver!” is better than merely serviceable, it’s never as first-rate as its strongest elements might suggest.
What does work here — and splendidly — is some spot-on casting. Young Wolford makes a fine, suitably boyish Oliver; Johanntges is the Nancy of any true “Oliver!” lover’s dreams (her rendition of torch-ballad “As Long As He Needs Be” is well-nigh definitive); old pro Jendre’s amusing spin on Fagin is so entertainingly Borscht Belt that I’m surprised he hasn’t played Tevye by now; Dan Lancy gives Bill Sykes the right combination of menacing and sexy that the part demands; and Dave Wolford does wonders with the (relatively) thankless role of orphanage/workhouse major domo Mr. Bumble. Also very good are Stacy Anderson (the wittily monikered Mrs. Sowerberry), Canfield High sophomore Rosie Jo Neddy (Nancy’s bosom buddy, Bet) and Lynn Kirkwood as the old beggar woman who holds the key to the mystery of Oliver’s parentage.
Musical director Anthony Ruggiero does yeoman work, even if his best efforts are sometimes obscured by tech problems. The bustling ensemble of orphans, townspeople and Fagin’s miscreants reliably hit their marks without bumping into one another. In a show this large and frequently unwieldy, that’s an enviable feat.
“Oliver!” runs through next Sunday at the Youngstown Playhouse. For tickets, call 330-788-8309.