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The mess that is “Oliver!” at Encore (Review) February 14, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals, Uncategorized.
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Against my better judgement (the larger the cast, the more I stay away from Encore productions), I went to see Oliver! last night, mostly to see my friends in the show.

Here’s what I can say. The leads are all quite good. The secondary leads border on bad (with notable exceptions: and all of them are used either in the Undertaker scene, or the Street Seller sequence). And the production as a whole is terrible. I left the show thinking there is no way I can write a review on this, its that bad. But then I though, I really should write a review on this, to warn people expecting a good production of a show that many people love.

There are some sparks of life: Mahalia Greenway is a superb Nancy, trapped in terrible blocking not of her choosing…Tobin Hissong is a fantastic Fagin…and the set looks great and works functionally for the production (which used a turntable in the original Broadway production and fully realized sets in later stagings).  The two-piece piano/drum combo sounds like a two-piece combo. They are not credited in the program.

Despite a great set, the lighting is dismal and too dark for this musical. Colors are tinged with yellow and orange throughout, making everything look, well, not London-dirty but Dexter-out-of-gels dingy.

The kids in the show (I know, I know, how can a reviewer knock kids?) lack charisma, and there are too many girls in the workhouse boys sequence which makes the entire “Food Glorious Food” sequence sound too thin and too high. Instead of spunky kids of various ages caught between childhood and a life of servitude, you get soprano and high tenor overtones that wash out any life these kids might have in them. They do better later in Fagin’s gang, but by that point the damage has been done.  I wont mention my thoughts on Oliver and Dodger.

Things get better as the mediocre to poor ensemble dissipates and the adult actors take over — and the second act is better than the first, not only because its written better, but because the many ensemble numbers have been finished and gone…This is a production in which the ensemble definitely does not mesh with the more polished professionals, and it is very noticeable.

But my biggest gripe goes to the direction/choreography. What the heck??? There are gaps and holes you can drive a mack-truck through. Songs end and people just stand there. Lines are finished, and people stand on stage frozen for 8 – 10 beats while the music cues catch up. Nobody talks over music cues, they wait until the music sounds its final notes. People look at the door before anyone knocks. Oliver not only has time to escape from the Undertaker, he has time to drink a Redbull tallboy before he goes.  Alisa Mutchler-Bauer has impressive credits in her program bio. That doesn’t match what is on stage at the Encore, much of which feels like its blocked by others — the actors themselves maybe? Take the initial meeting between Oliver and Dodger — could it have been drawn out any longer? Oliver sits toward the front of the stage and Dodger appears at the top of the stairs stage right, aware that he has seen his “mark” down below…he stands there for a moment or two while Oliver finishes putzing with his bag, and then “hides” at far stage left under the stairs…Dodger then primps and preens a bit, fixing his hat, making himself look like a sophisticate, and then begins his long slow walk down the stairs…stopping at the bottom to preen some more…then eventually moving toward center to make his first line —OY!!!!! That should have started two minute earlier. This kind of slop is clearly poor direction. Kids will do whatever you tell them to do.  This pattern repeats over and over throughout the show. Scenes that should be funny don’t garner a single laugh (“I shall scream”). Choreography in “Consider Yourself” is repetitive, basic-church-basement-theatre pattern-filled, and it just looks bad on stage. This is not the actors fault — they are given bad blocking and choreography to work with.

So — I wasn’t going to review this production. You can see why. But you can also vote with your wallets on things like this. Just because it is there doesn’t mean people will come. Clearly word of mouth is out, because my performance was only half full last night, for a show that should be raking in the bucks.

Not recommended.

Oliver! continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company (whose next show is not a musical) through March 2nd.

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