By Tom Holehan

The venerable Ivoryton Playhouse has taken on a challenging project with its current revival of "Oliver". The Lionel Bart classic based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" is a busy, somewhat dark musical that relies, in large part, on a company of talented young boys. Sad to say those boys -- and many of the adults around them at Ivoryton -- rarely come up to a level more than serviceable.


Beginning with the low-energy opening of the boys coming down the Playhouse aisle singing the rousing "Food, Glorious Food", this "Oliver" seems in trouble. It's a rag-tag group of young actors and this jubilant song possesses little joy, spontaneity or exuberance. It's a rendering that would be quite suitable in a high school production, but not a professional theatre. Tyler Felson is a wide-eye and adorable Oliver who hits most of his high notes but he often seems adrift and uncomfortable in the role.


To this end director R. Bruce Connelly has not taken charge of the production and it often seems aimless with lackluster pacing, confused staging and sloppy choreography. There are so many pauses and awkward moments between Mr. Bumble (Michael Cartwright) and Widow Corney (Maureen Pollard) that it does a disservice to their otherwise well-sung "I Shall Scream". Connelly has also allowed some grotesque playing on the parts of Robert Boardman and Tara Michelle Gesling as funeral home owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry that would seem out of place in a "Hellzapoppin" revue.


The plum role of The Artful Dodger has been squandered by Nathan J. Russo whose tentative performance would benefit from subtitles while Sam Schrader's overwrought Noah Claypole is a series of facial ticks and exaggerated posturing that is more disturbing than comical.


Some performances, however, do manage to rise above the mediocre. Neal Mayer's funny and wily Fagin seems completely at one with the world of Dickens and his second act showstopper, "Reviewing the Situation", is performed with great brio. The lethal Bill Sykes of T.J. Mannix registers strongly and Kimberly Morgan's ill-fated Nancy is good enough to make you wish it was just a little better. Her singing of the torchy "As Long As He Needs Me", though, was a definite crowd-pleaser.


Musical Director John Sebastian DeNicola's orchestra is relegated to the green room for this production and unfortunately sounds oddly muted. There was apparently little room for the musicians given Cully Long’s expansive scenic design. Mr. Long's work is impressive though it would be nice to see at least a few upscale set pieces to represent Oliver's new high society digs. LisaMarie Harry does a fine job with her costuming for both the rich and poor characters.


"Oliver" still has a winning score that includes such memorable tunes as "Where Is Love", "Pick a Pocket or Two", "Oom Pah Pah" and "I'd Do Anything" and, even under lesser circumstances, they are always still worth hearing. It continues at the Ivoryton Playhouse through September 2. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.767.7318 or visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.


Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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