Charles Dickens’s bleak tale of a desperate orphan boy in 19th century London hardly seems like inspiring musical theater fare. And yet, what makes the musical “Oliver!” so uplifting is composer Lionel Bart’s emphasis on embracing life, no matter how small its pleasures. The Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of “Oliver!” finds Dickens’s sense of hope and love in the midst of degradation and despair and energizes the story with a terrific vocal ensemble of both children and adults.
In the title role, sixth-grader Charlie Clinton displays an angelic voice with a demeanor to match. His unadorned renditions of both “Where Is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” create that delicate balance of utter loneliness and hope that fuels the emotional tone of this musical.
Clinton also has the support of every member of the cast of more than 40. From the moment the workhouse orphans march in to get their bowl of gruel singing “Food, Glorious Food” to the final moment of redemption, director Susan Kosoff and her production team attend to every detail.
Matthew T. Lazure’s adaptation of Anthony Hancock’s design is superb: A multi-level set is gray and cobblestoned, with bridges and arches suggesting the dark alleys of London complete with a bit of fog hanging over everything. With the simple addition of a table and chairs, each of the areas becomes an orphanage, a funeral parlor, a pub, or a pickpockets’ lair, with the help of Franklin Meissner Jr.’s lighting. Kosoff uses every inch of the set, creating a sense of movement to a variety of London scenes without slowing the action down for a second. Laurel Conrad’s choreography accents and amplifies important moments without becoming distracting.
Kosoff and musical director Jon Goldberg have also found some impressive talent for key roles. Brittany Rolfs has a truly stunning voice, and gives the saloon gal Nancy a rough edge that makes her willingness to risk everything for Oliver much more poignant. The emotional range Rolfs displays between “It’s a Fine Life” and “As Long as He Needs Me” offers another opportunity for Kosoff to walk that line between hope and despair.
Kosoff casts against type with Jane Staab playing Fagin, the leader of a band of young pickpockets Oliver falls in with. Staab underplays a role that often turns into caricature, and finds more pathos than expected in Fagin’s fear of growing old. Her version of “Reviewing the Situation” starts out humorously, but becomes a little fearful, even desperate. Staab’s choice to play Fagin as a woman passing as a man isn’t jarring, but doesn’t really add much to the story or the character.
But nothing in this production disappoints, with the performances driving everything, especially Jeffrey Sewell as a charming Artful Dodger, Timothy John Smith as an absolutely terrifying Bill Sikes, and the ensemble in “Who Will Buy?” practically stopping the show with their delicious harmonies.
Goldberg’s six-piece orchestra provides the perfect accompaniment for the singing actors, sending the audience out of the theater on a wonderfully upbeat note.