AISLE SAY San Francisco


Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Directed by Jeffrey Bracco
Presented by Broadway By the Bay
Fox Theatre
2215 Broadway St., Redwood City / (650) 579-5565

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Staging "Oliver!" calls for a certain amount of ambition because of the challenges presented by Lionel Bart's 1960 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist."

One challenge is that all the scene changes might interrupt the dramatic flow. Thanks to an adaptable set designed by Jerald Enos, Broadway By the Bay minimizes the lapses. Still, this production directed by Jeffrey Bracco can feel episodic.

Another challenge is that the show requires many children. BBB succeeds on this count because most of the youngsters are somewhat older than one might expect. Hence the opening scene, "Food, Glorious Food," at the London workhouse gets the show off to a good start.

Oliver Twist, the orphaned title character, is played by 12-year-old Shayan Hooshmand, who does a good job, starting with his memorable opening line, "Please, sir, I want some more," as he tries to get another helping of the gruel served by the workhouse caretaker, Mr. Bumble (Robert Sholty). He also does well in his primary song, "Where Is Love?"

Later, he joins in on the show's most successful song, "Who Will Buy?" which starts with five street vendors in haunting counterpoint and ends in a full-fledged production number, well choreographed by Pauline Kanter.

Other musical aspects are more mixed. Part of the problem is that Jon Hayward's sound design is too loud and tends to distort higher notes. Another is that some principals mistake volume for emotion. Understanding the Cockney accents can be a problem.

Then there's intonation, especially in "My Name," sung by the show's villain, Bill Sykes (Rich Matli). Musical director Samuel Cisneros's orchestra also has iintonation issues.

Back on the plus side is Ryan Mardesich as The Artful Dodger, who finds the runaway Oliver on the streets and takes him to Fagin, who harbors children and teaches them how to pick pockets. Fagin is winningly played by Jef Valentine, who has fun with "Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Reviewing the Situation."

Dickens wrote "Oliver Twist" as a way to expose how cruelly and thoughtlessly orphans were treated in Victorian England. The musical softens some of those edges, but the basic idea is still there.

After Oliver has the courage to ask for more gruel, Bumble sells him to an undertaker, but Oliver runs away from there after getting into a fight. That's when The Artful Dodger finds him. Oliver has more adventures after that, and the story ends on both unhappy and happy notes -- unhappy for Nancy (Amie Shapiro), Bill's girlfriend, and happy for Oliver, who wind up with his grandfather, Mr. Brownlow (Ron Dritz).

This production of "Oliver" represents a milestone for BBB because it's the first in the company's long history to use local designers, artistic director Amanda Folena told the opening night audience. Besides the set by Enos, the realistic period costumes are by Margaret Toomey, who also serves as production manager. BBB has rented sets and costumes in the past.

Despite its shortcomings, the opening night production had enough pluses that it received an enthusiastic reception from the audience. It also served as a good introduction for those who have never seen this musical or its 1968 film.

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