“Oliver” still has a score that invites adults and children to hum happily along, a virtue that is particularly crucial in the Kodak Theater launch of Cameron Mackintosh’s touring version that is swamped by overly busy direction and miscasting in many of the major roles.
After an enjoyable ensemble blend of hungry children singing “Food, Glorious Food,” “Oliver” sacrifices Dickensian grit for sweetness. Oliver Twist (Justin S. Pereira) is clean-cut, cute and huggable, but he doesn’t suggest the inner steel that would enable him to vanquish one mortal enemy after another. Another miscalculation is Mr. Bumble (Ken Clement), the workhouse villain who ignores Oliver’s request for a second helping, and sells him as punishment for daring to ask, “please, sir, I want some more.” There’s no threat to Bumble’s meanness, and his brief number “I Shall Scream” with the domineering Widow Corney (Gwen Eyster) comes across as unnecessary filler.
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Once sold to a casket maker, Oliver encounters Mrs. Sowerberry (Kimberley Xavier Martins), whose sharp cruelty is truly Dickensian and pumps blood into the plot. Oliver’s plaintive, pathetic “Where Is Love?” is well justified in the face of her viciousness, and provides the production’s most affecting moment.
As always, however, the massive portion of “Oliver” rests on the shoulders of master thief Fagin (Mark McCracken). McCracken has physical presence, but the oily, treacherous aspects of the character are barely discernible. Called an “avaricious old skeleton” he furnishes a wholesome rendition of “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket Or Two” that dilutes the number’s gleefully manipulative undercurrents.
Shane R. Tanner is closer to authentic Victorian melodrama as barbaric Bill Sikes, without achieving that heinous hissability factor so essential to Dickens’ blackly drawn bad guys. More on the mark is Andrew Blau’s cunning, appealingly playful Artful Dodger.
The show’s chief distinction is Renata Renee Wilson’s Nancy, Sikes’ prostitute mistress; she possesses a sexy, smoky voice that wraps itself around “As Long as He Needs Me” and makes the song her own. Tough and streetwise, she brings the part both earthiness and dignity. She scores on “It’s a Fine Life” and successfully battles a sound system that nearly drowns her out on “Oom-Pah-Pah.”
Much of the score is blurred by frenetic hyperactivity, making her quiet solos especially vibrant and welcome. She even triumphs over an awkwardly staged death scene, remaining in our thoughts as the story hurtles forward and wraps up too hastily. There’s no time to digest Nancy’s murder before Oliver is reclaimed, Fagin dismissed, Sikes shot and the cast beamingly onstage with final reprises.
Director Graham Gill’s best overall contribution is the lilting and beautifully presented “Who Will Buy,” spotlighting clowns, balloons, a strong man and a ballerina with red and pink parasol, images that recall the lush colors of Vincente Minnelli. Adrian Vaux’s set design, both bleak (London bridge) and sumptuous (a brightly lit London street) provides needed period atmosphere, and Jenny Kagan’s lighting lends magic to snowfalls and fog. Musically, though, the performers are sometimes out of tune, diminishing William David Brohn’s expert orchestrations.