Under the deft, imaginative adaptation and staging of Tony Award-winner Jeff Calhoun (Broadway revival of “Grease”), Deaf West’s thoroughly original interpretation of the popular Lionel Bart musical reaffirms the power and transcendence of live theater.
Calhoun’s creative interplay of speaking and signing actors is near seamless, bonded by the director’s clever incorporation of Dickens’ original text to facilitate the continuity of the storyline. Complementing Calhoun’s efforts are the adroit musical direction and keyboard work of Carol Weiss and a facile four-piece instrumental ensemble.
And given the limited space he had to work with, Brian-Paul Mendoza’s musical staging is remarkable.
Utilizing the great 19th century British author’s words even more faithfully than Bart’s original book, this tune-filled yarn follows Oliver’s (Joshua Ari Soudakoff) nutrition-deprived orphanage days under the rule of inept Mr. Bumble (Troy Kotsur) and the rapacious Widow Corney (Carol Kline), to his brief but volatile experience as a mortician’s assistant to the cadaverous Ms. Sowerberry (Vae), and his adventurous days as an apprentice thief under the tutelage of the gleefully larcenous Fagin (George McDaniel).
Enlivening the lad’s adventures are congenial, light-fingered pickpocket the Artful Dodger (Harris Doran), murderous master crook Bill Sykes (Ryan Schlect/Tasos Pappos) and Sykes’ streetwise but tenderhearted girlfriend Nancy (Antoinette Abbamonte/Susan Hoffman).
The driving force of the action is McDaniel, who skillfully segues back and forth from his sophisticated duties as narrator to wallow in the persona of Fagin. The dual role often provides hilarity, as McDaniel’s stiff-necked narrator often has to dissolve in an instant into the comical villain who delights in instructing his thieving charges (“Pick a Pocket or Two”), yet is single-mindedly looking out for himself (“I’m Reviewing the Situation”).
For the most part, the ensemble is superb. The shifting focus between players is dance-like, but it’s clearly a careful blending of choreographed action. The attention is never divided, as the singing Nancy (Hoffman) and the signing Nancy (Abbamonte) meld their talents in the ironic “It’s a Fine Love,” the raucous “Oom Pah, Pah, Pah,” and the emotion-packed, “As Long as He Needs Me.”
This singing-signing synergy segues into a quartet, as Soudakoff’s Oliver and Abbamonte’s Nancy offer a playful, signed rendition of “I’d Do Anything for You” voiced in perfect unison by young Josh Breslow (the voice of Oliver) and Hoffman. Breslow also turns in a fragile but haunting a cappella rendition of “Where Is Love.”
Doran is effective as the swaggering, scampish Dodger, who first invites Oliver into Fagin’s den of thieves (“Consider Yourself”). The bawdy courtship (“I Shall Scream”) of Kotsur’s Mr. Bumble and Kline’s Widow Corney is a comical delight, as is the Vae (acting and signing)/Faye DeWitt (singing) collaboration on Sowerberry’s parsimonious rendition of “That’s Your Funeral.” Later, DeWitt offers an exquisite vocal rendition of “Who Will Buy.” Also memorable is the soaring tenor voice of William C. Martinez, who captures the sadness inherent in “Boy for Sale.”
The only weak aspect of the production is Wanda LaCoure’s lackluster signed performance as Oliver’s eventual benefactor, Ms. Brownlow. She’s never in sync with the surrounding action, despite the earnest voiced efforts of DeWitt.