Encore Michigan

Oliver! and “More! ” at The Riverbank

Review September 17, 2017 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, Mich.–The Riverbank Theatre and director Aaron Dennis Smith bring another favorite to the stage in Marine City with the musical Oliver! With book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, Oliver! is the musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, the tale of the circumstances of a young English orphan.

Those circumstances include being sold from a workhouse to an unpleasant undertaker, running away and finding himself among a gang of other orphans who survive by picking pockets under the supervision of a criminal, being wrongfully arrested as a result of his naivete, being kidnapped to prevent him squealing on the criminal gang leader and his accomplices, being used as a hostage by one said accomplice, and ultimately being claimed by his rightful relative.

Though the circumstances seem dire and depressing when listed as above, the musical version of this story highlights the humor in Oliver’s situations, the humanity in some of the characters he encounters, and his own innocent and cheerful outlook. Despite the desperate times he finds himself in, Oliver (played by Brian Martin) never loses hope.

Because the plot narrative is necessarily watered down from the original Dickens novel, and a good deal of dialogue is sacrificed for musical numbers, Oliver! depends greatly on the ability of cast members to reveal their characters and tell their story almost exclusively in song. The cast here is successful as a whole on that score, though there are some notable standouts.

Eighth-grader Noah Carlson immediately engages the audience in his character The Artful Dodger with his vocal energy, fluid choreography and amazing accent in “Consider Yourself.” The lovely Cheyenne Bolt takes her abused character Nancy through a complicated emotional gamut, from being the life of the party to the sacrificial defender of Oliver. Her conflict surrounding her misplaced loyalty to her cruel boyfriend Bill Sikes shines through in the poignant “As Long As He Needs Me.” Eric Niece does a masterful job throughout the show as Fagin, using comic expression to make the audience like what would otherwise be a seedy character, especially in “”You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two.” And although his growling, gravelly voice comes close to being over-the-top, the scowling Matthew Wallace is indisputably sinister as the cruel Bill Sikes in “My Name.”

Much of the music of Oliver! (whose original Broadway production in 1963 won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score) will be familiar to audiences, even those who have not seen it. The group of young actors portraying the orphans display their singing chops immediately in the lively opening number “Food, Glorious Food,” in which they fantasize about richer, more delicious fare. Music Director Aaron Dennis Smith and choreographer Brittany Smith help them achieve a tightly performed romp complete with British accents.

Other notable numbers are the comical “I Shall Scream” (sung by Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney) and “That’s Your Funeral,” the introspective “Where Is Love?” and the interlude “Who Will Buy?”

If there is a weakness of Oliver!, (likely owing to the script and not this cast or director) it may be the lack of narrative detail. This sometimes creates gaps in the plot that are awkwardly filled in later, such as when Oliver is arrested for picking pockets but ends up living comfortably with a caring patron; or sometimes leaves the audience to fill in a backstory for themselves, such as with the undeveloped relationship between Nancy, Bill Sikes and Fagin. On a minor technical note, there are times when the lead vocals were a bit eclipsed by the background cast.

These issues, however, do not prevent the cast from providing solid musical entertainment to Riverbank Patrons. Even adolescent audiences will enjoy the show, owing partly to the safely sanitized portrayal of the few violent parts of the plot, but mainly to the able performance of the strong young cast.

The whole family can enjoy the music and the Dickens classic story.

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Week of 6/29/2020

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