By Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
A sad-faced orphan sings for his supper in the classic Charles Dickens tale, “Oliver!” in Lionel Bart’s musical version presented by the students of the Richard E. Rauh Conservatory, backed by the talented CAPA Orchestra (with additional roles filled out by the professional artists of Pittsburgh Musical Theater).
When a workhouse boy, Oliver (Benjamin Godley Fisher), dares to ask for a second helping of gruel, his caretaker Mr. Bumble (Sky Bennett) decides the troublemaker must be removed from the premises. He doesn’t just kick him to the curb, but, instead, sells him to a local undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (Brady David Patsy). The situation at the funeral parlor is bleak. Soon, Oliver is on the street. The young boy is starving for sustenance and affection.
While moping on the corner, Oliver has a chance encounter with a masterful young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Brecken Farrell). Dodger invites Oliver to to meet Fagin (Nathan Sudie) and the other boys (a legion of distressed-dressed moppets, both male and female in PMT’s version). Fagin teaches Oliver the local trade, telling him “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.”
Oliver is out with the Dodger working the streets, freeing gentlemen of their burdensome wallets, but he gets nabbed on his first job, trying to steal from Mr. Brownlow (Nick Cortazzo).
Spoilers: The twist in Oliver Twist’s life, unbeknownst to both perp and victim, is that Brownlow is Oliver’s grandfather.
Meanwhile, Fagin schemes with the murderous Bill Sykes (Rush Hodgin) to get the boy back. Sykes bullies his girlfriend Nancy (Sabrina Picciani) into grabbing Oliver from Brownlow’s posh neighborhood.
But when Nancy decides she wants to return Oliver to Brownlow, all hell breaks loose. Not everyone gets a happy ending. Actually, Nancy’s storyline might be tough for some of the younger audience members. Her occupation and her fate might leave the kids with lots of questions.
For a musical “Oliver!” has a dark, dense plot. To make matters even more confusing some of the roles are double cast or switched out. For example, Sky Bennett and Rush Hodgin swap roles. One night Bennett is Bumble, while Hodgin is Sykes. The following night they pull the old switcheroo (this review will align with the opening night performance). The good news is that both performers were superb in their roles.
Be prepared, Lionel Bart’s lyrics will earworm their way into your brain (“Who will buy this Beautiful Morning” is rattling around in this critic’s brain right now).
The show rests squarely on the shoulders of the actor playing the titular Oliver. It’s an enormous burden for an actor so young, but Godley Fisher is up to the task.
Picciani is luminescent as Nancy. The musical is at its best when she is on stage. Her mellifluous singing voice was one of the show’s highlights. Farrell’s charismatic Dodger was another. Brady Patsy played a the undertaker, Sowerberry. While the role is small (Sowerberry is in two short scenes), his performance is big.
Additionally, Sudie’s Fagin is a lot of fun, chewing up the scenery with a whimsical song and a devious smile.
“Oliver!” is brimming over with scores of characters. There may be a few too many members of the ensemble, overcrowding even the ample Byham stage. However, the show is written with scores of characters, some of them important to the plot and other superfluous. Each of them have a few moments in the spotlight, luckily, under Lisa Elliott’s direction, most of them shine.
“Oliver!” runs through October 25th at the Byham Theater, 101 Sixth Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, please click here.