To the English Theatre Company at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, “age ain’t nothing but a number.”
At least it was when it came to casting their current production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, the musical of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist set to time-tested songs. Usually known for recruiting small armies of young actors to play Oliver, Artful Dodger and a chorus of hungry orphans and street urchins, this show instead fills each role with one of the company’s 17 adult performers.
And since opening on Dec. 6 as the company’s first full-on musical, it has become the highest-attended production in NAC English Theatre’s history.
It is a testament to the enduring popularity of Oliver! that such an often-produced play will continue to break sales records and please crowds, even without the inherent “cuteness” factor of a cast of children. But even though director Dayna Tekatch’s take on Oliver! is meant to be darker, direr, and a better representation of the characters’ gritty reality, ultimately she ends up undermining her potentially alternative vision through conventional staging.
Just as in Ken Gass’s colour-blind adaptation of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters at Factory Theatre in Toronto proved earlier this year, actors don’t necessarily have to embody all aspects of their characters for the play to work. In fact, adult actors commonly play characters half their age. Still, a group of healthy adults marching in highly choreographed movements as malnourished wards in the opening Food, Glorious Food is a sight that requires some getting used to.
The rest of the show mostly comes across in the same way, riding from dance number to melodramatic confrontation – sprinkled with the odd slapstick fall, magic trick, audience interaction, or pet played by a human – always seeming to skim the surface of the subject matter. The company pulls it off, some even in their musical debut, and it’s undeniably entertaining. However that is often the description many mistakenly associate with musicals – they’re fun, but with little depth.
This, of course, is with exceptions.
In terms of performances, there were a few that quite successfully blurred the boundaries between childhood and adulthood: a giddy, squealing proposal scene between Randi Helmers as Widow Corney and Jeremiah Sparks as Mr. Bumble, a self-assured Artful Dodger by Jennifer Waiser, Joey Tremblay as an aged Fagin with an identity crisis of a teenager, and a subtle yet heroic act in taking down the evil Bill Sykes by the young rascal Charley Bates, played by Jamie Mac.
However, most effective is Allen Cole’s musical direction. Having to completely reorchestrate the score to fit more mature voices, he used the opportunity to create moments of doubt, fear, and subtext in the music that didn’t exist before. Embellished accompaniment in Nancy’s As Long As He Needs Me (performed by Celine Stubel) came across as far more melancholy than sad, and Oliver’s Where Is Love? is quite desperate, even pathetic, when such tender words are sung with Thomas Olajide’s mature, deep voice.
Orchestrated pauses in Who Will Buy? and Consider Yourself stop the action and highlight Oliver’s sense of anxiety in his new environment. Choices like these most clearly indicate where Tekatch was trying to take her direction of Oliver! and are welcomed moments of ingenuity in an otherwise traditional adaptation.
Suitable for ages eight and up, Oliver! is well-timed for families eager for an artistic evening out around the holidays, and ticket sales show that in Ottawa, that’s needed. Artistically, though, we wish Oliver! had grown up a bit more.
Oliver! runs in Ottawa until Dec. 31.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Written by Lionel Bart
- Directed by Dayna Tekatch
- Starring Thomas Olajide, Jennifer Waiser, Joey Tremblay
- At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa
- 2.5 STARS