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Theater review: 'Oliver!' is a heart twister

Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era “Oliver Twist” can drive one to despair, but Camelot Theatre’s production of “Oliver!” will leave you thoughtful of those who have not — and hopeful that love and caring can save body and soul.

“Oliver!” is the story of Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse and sold to an undertaker at the age of 9. Oliver runs away to London, where he is taken in by a gang of pickpockets taught the trade by an elderly thief, Fagin. By a series of accidents and intents, Oliver is united with his grandfather, and the gang is scattered.

There are two Olivers in the Camelot production, Liam Hokama and Bjorn Johnson, and two Artful Dodgers, Kanai Liufau and Lionel Ward. Hokama had the Oliver role and Liufau the Dodger’s in the opening performance last week, but all four boys are equally skilled and shadow each other throughout the production.

“I felt like it was hard to remember all the lines and all the choreography,” said Johnson. “My favorite part is “Where is Love.” ... I like singing by myself because I feel like I have a little more control, so if I mess up, I can just go with it.”

“Sometimes the other actors don’t remember all their cues, and sometimes it’s hard to improvise and fix errors,” Hokama said. “My favorite scene was with Noah Claypool (played by Alex Hume), when I jump on his back — it was fight choreography.”

“We have double cast the roles of Oliver and Dodger especially because of the time of year and illnesses that usually occur doing a show with kids. We wanted to make sure that there was a backup for these two roles,” explained Shawn Ramagos, Camelot’s artistic director. “We decided not to make it an understudy role and instead shared to make it fair for everyone, as all had to do the same amount of work on the roles.”

The cast of “Oliver!,” an ensemble of 14 boys and girls performing as boys from 8 to 14 years old, is remarkable. This large and unruly crowd owned the boards with their voices, choreography and energy. The smallest watched the bigger kids for the blocking, their cues and steps and the bigger kids helped the little ones along — all charming to see and appreciate.

“Rehearsals for the two Olivers and two Dodgers took twice as long because one had to do it and then the other had to do it,” Ramagos said. “It made the process a little longer, but we started eight weeks early.”

Conductor Don Hopkinson, Jr. admits that early in rehearsals, the crew was rowdy and difficult to contain but that they settled down nicely and focused during the last weeks.

A very frightening Bruno Marcotulli is wonderfully cast as Bill Sikes. Marcotulli is tall and lean, and his measured voice and cold eyes are menacing. Kristen Calvin has the role of Nancy, Sikes’ woman, and it is delightful to see Calvin in a dramatic role. Her rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me” is heartbreaking, given the position of an unmarried woman in Victorian England.

Fagin is played by Lenny Horn, a role that has been softened and gentled in the contemporary performances of “Oliver!” Horn as Fagin is lovable, bumptious and comic, caring for the boys in his charge and protecting them from Sikes and the workhouse even as he profits. Some of the biggest laughs of the evening were Horn’s as he decorates himself with purloined jewelry and dreams of the future.

The set design of “Oliver!” is appropriately grim and dismal — lighting and video projections make you feel that you are underground in a cellar hideaway. The only access to the cellar is through a manhole cover, and the boys scramble up and down a ladder to get to street level under the loft of the theater. The bleakness is enhanced with the dingy grays and browns of costuming and soil.

Camelot’s commitment to live music continues with this performance. Conductor Don Hopkinson, Jr. directed 11 musicians who played offstage. After the performance and during credits, a video feed brings the musicians onto the stage, where the entire cast and audience can recognize the musicians’ work.

Written by Charles Dickens in 1837, “Oliver Twist” was adapted for the British stage as a musical in 1960, and in 1968 it was released as a film. Dickens was a keen social critic during the Victorian era, and through his writings he increased public awareness of child labor abuses and social hypocrisy. Disease, starvation and economic deprivation orphaned tens of thousands of children at the time, leaving them prey to the industrial revolution.

The New Poor Law of 1834 sent the impoverished to workhouses, treating poverty as a moral flaw. And while a series of laws enacted in 1833, known as The Factory Acts, progressively improved working conditions for children, life by 1856 was still very hard: children younger than 9 could not be legally employed and those older than 9 could work no more than 60 hours per week.

“Oliver!” tells the stories of Victorian England and has meaning for today — to protect and care for each other — a reminder that poverty is not a moral issue and that hunger is not far from many doors here in the Rogue Valley. Camelot Theatre delivers these messages with grace, energy and good entertainment.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Camelot Theatre's production of{ } “Oliver!” brings to life the streets of Victorian England as orphan Oliver goes from mistreatment in the London workhouses to finding a family and his true home.