The Utah Musical Theatre has finally met its match in the musical "Oliver" - met its match in a positive way.
This company and this show were made for each other.In past productions, the sweet innocence of youth had a tendency to intrude. Those Russian soldiers in "Fiddler on the Roof" were just a little too fey; the cowboys in "Oklahoma" had an over-abundance of boy.
But with "Oliver" - based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" - youth wins out. And Dickens' caricatures lend themselves to over-the-top portrayals - like villains in a "Batman" movie or heroes in a Disney film.
And the UMT cast delivers the goods here.
To begin with, for a production of "Oliver" to score any points at all it must have a truly sinister Sykes, a captivating Fagin and a Nancy with a heart of gold. And though some of the lesser parts here are unevenly cast (some characters seem to be reciting speeches or delivering lectures) the big three roles are solid.
As Fagin, grade-school principal Dee Pace shows he could have been a contender in theaters on the coast. His Fagin is part Merlin the Magician, part Billis. And Pace hasn't lost a step. In fact, he's gained a bigger following. Andre Ward chews up the scenery as Sykes, showing what evil lurks in the hearts of men. And Teri Cowan's Nancy goes from gutter snipe to golden girl in a nice, melodious turn.
The most pleasant surprise of the evening, for me, was watching Charles E. H. Faulkner (as Bumble) and Paris Bradstreet (as his wife) play off each other much like the master and mistress of the house in "Les Miserables." They bounce each other to some wonderful comic heights here. Michael A. Harding and Jennifer Thomas offer a dour counterpoint to the twosome as the undertakers - with Thomas cleverly made up to look like a corpse (or is that a hint of Addams family I see in the grease paint?).
Young Ryan Olsen is Oliver. With his choir boy looks and winsome style, Olsen is the Victorian era's classic "beautiful child" - with director Scott LaFeber opting to use the role as a generic representation of innocent victims everywhere.
A little more animation in the part would have gone a long way, however.
Sean Griffin as the artful dodger and Dean Winter as Noah bring out the vigorous youthfulness that makes this musical work.
Choreography by Rowland Butler is rowdy and energetic, and the scenery, lights and costumes bring out the darker side of low-life London.
No song serves as a show-stopper, though Cowan's heartfelt rendition of "As Long as He Needs Me" and the passionate ensemble piece "Oom-Pah-Pah" generate some pop.
Taken as a whole, the production is strong enough to warrant your time. The Utah Musical Theatre keeps coming along. True, the troupe is weak where it has always been weak: an inability to cast deep enough to keep overtones of community theater out of the show. A nice, big chunk of money would also go a long way toward helping designers rely on high-quality materials and authenticity and not so much on clever ideas and cut-and-paste arrangements.
The Utah Festival Opera in Logan, the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City and Pioneer Memorial Theatre in Salt Lake City still lead the Utah field. But the Utah Musical Theatre is making headway.
When the funding finally gets to a point that artistic director James C. Christian can finally start to rely on a few equity players and drop some of his current, solid leading players back into dynamite supporting roles - watch out.