When musical theatre gets it right, when everything is firing on all cylinders – the performances, the vocals, the orchestra, set, costume, lighting, everything – it is a sight and sound to behold. The joy is evident in those on stage (and implicit in the music pit) and is reciprocated by the audience in spades. It’s what makes musical theatre so magical - that joy and sheer optimism is infectious and a counterpoint to the anti-heroes and cynicism that populate much of the small and big screen these days.
This is the third production I have seen at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre directed by Karen Francis after Hairspray (2012) and The Phantom of the Opera (2013). Francis picks crowd-pleasers that pull eager audiences and are big in scope and ambition. In Oliver! she has outdone herself - a huge cast of well over sixty that features forty children; a twenty piece orchestra that was in top form; and what I’ve come to expect from all of her productions, impressive set design that takes advantage of the spacious MPAC stage and attention to detail in the costuming. What especially stands out with this production is the lighting – it’s a beautiful looking show with copious use of smoke to enhance the lighting design.
Then there are the songs. Oliver! is littered with memorable numbers – Consider Yourself, You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket, Oom-Pah-Pah, As Long As He Needs Me and so on. It was during Consider Yourself that I was smiling away happily but every number is so well staged and sung. It is foot-tapping, rousing material that is thoroughly entertaining.
To the story - Oliver (Ryan White) is an orphan in a workhouse who has the audacity to ask for more food from Mister Bumble (Scott Hansen). For his trouble he is sold to undertaker Mister Sowerberry (Rory Ellis) to be his apprentice. Oliver promptly runs away and ends up meeting the Artful Dodger (Bailey Bridgman-Peters) in London who takes him to Fagin (Jon Lambert), the leader of a band of pickpockets. Oliver’s first attempt as thievery doesn’t go well, however, he ends up with the wealthy Mister Brownlow (Peter Sydney-Smith) who could be the provider of a better life. This doesn’t sit well with Fagin’s notorious associate Bill Sikes (Tom Hennessy) who abducts Oliver over the protests of his put upon girlfriend Nancy (Sky Ogier). Events come to a head with a tragic end for Nancy, the demise of Sikes, and Oliver’s rescue. Fagin remains as he ever was… or will he seek an honest living as he disappears off stage laughing?
That brief summary hardly does justice to a story populated by so many other memorable characters. It also bears some resemblance to that other ‘orphan’ musical, the one from across the Atlantic – Annie – that was on at Koorliny Arts Centre recently. Oliver! is much darker in places but both are preoccupied with the quest to (find and) better yourself and interestingly the involvement of a wealthy benefactor to assist you in doing so (Brownlow, Warbucks).
Like Annie, the title role here is critical though it could be argued that Oliver is quite a passive character mainly reacting to events that swirl around him. White is solid as the eponymous character and has a couple of lovely vocal moments, especially with Where Is Love. Hennessy is a suitably menacing Sikes and his showpiece number My Name is very well done. Sky Ogier is a standout as Nancy with a wonderful rendition of As Long As He Needs Me and a raucous Oom-Pah-Pah. Hansen has enormous fun as Mister Bumble and Jon Lambert is excellent as a charismatic Fagin. To think Lambert was the lumbering monster in Young Frankenstein earlier in the year and the contrast is astonishing. Bridgman-Peters is a cheeky Artful Dodger with the rest of the supporting cast all good. Then there is the huge ensemble mainly comprised of children which is a delight especially when the whole company is on stage.
There are so many highlights but three that immediately stand out are: the jaunty Consider Yourself is superb; As Long As He Needs Me strips away the multitudes to shine a spotlight solely on Ogier and she excels; and the extended Who Will Buy features members of the ensemble in fine voice, including Samantha Ferguson, in what is quite a moving sequence. I should also mention the on-stage violin work of William Huxtable who I initially thought was mimicking before realising, no, he actually is playing and is very good!
This really is an impressive production and I apologise to all those people I haven’t mentioned. When it finished a woman turned to me and exclaimed, “Wasn’t that brilliant?” It’s hard to argue otherwise and there was certainly a buzz as the audience was leaving the full matinee session.
Oliver! is directed by Karen Francis with Musical Director David Hicks, Choreographer Andre Beissel and Vocal Director Kristie Gray. There is only one performance remaining, Sunday at 6.30pm which, according to the MPAC website, is deservedly sold out.