Whenever a great novel is turned into a play, something inevitably will be lost in the translation. When the play is also a musical, a lot more of the original evaporates into thin air to make room for the song and dance routines. The most one can hope for is that the spirit of the first work will somehow survive. And the Compass Theatre Company's Oliver! at the Denver Civic Theatre, though a long, long way from Dickens's vision, does retain a spark of Oliver Twist's fire.
That spark is struck by Joey Wishnia's snappy direction. But Christopher Selbie's Fagin fuels the burn. Selbie's performance is quite simply the best reason to see the show. He slithers, capers and shimmies around the stage, his long coat swaying against his body as he performs a series of Groucho Marx scoots and Fiddler on the Roof dance moves. He manages to invest the stripped-down role with a touch of pathos, a good deal of puckish humor and even a pinch of boyishness.
Steve Wilson's self-important Mr. Bumble, boss of a state workhouse for indigents, is another strong point of the production; his massive presence and gruff, booming voice embody the bureaucratic indifference toward suffering that Dickens was after. It's a treat to see what Carla Kaiser's shrewish Mrs. Bumble can reduce him to--they make a very pretty pair of selfish scoundrels.
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The little boy the Bumbles seek to exploit was born in the workhouse to a destitute, dying young woman and named Oliver Twist by Bumble. When the child pleads for a little more gruel, Bumble sells him to an undertaker (played with ghoulish good humor by Joel A. Stults) just to get his bad influence out of the institution. Roundly abused by the undertaker's wife and clerk, Oliver runs away and on the streets meets the Artful Dodger, an accomplished thief who takes him to Fagin. The aging miser shelters and feeds a band of ragamuffin boys, fencing their stolen goods and training all comers in the art of picking pockets. The showstopper is Fagin's "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," but all of the songs in the Thieves' Kitchen scene are terrific: "It's a Fine Life" (sung with spirited sarcasm by Mary Elizabeth Staunton), "I'll Do Anything" and "Be Back Soon."
In the second act, Oliver narrowly escapes hanging when he is falsely accused of picking a pocket. Fortunately for him, the man whose pocket was picked, Mr. Brownlow, is a kindly gentleman who takes the lad in, and Oliver knows the first peace of his life. Oliver's touching song "Who Will Buy" comes as a sentimental sigh of hope.
The show's bright tunes are matched by a variety of inventive, delightful performances by the young cast. Colin Smith as Oliver has a sweet voice. But it's Justin Torkildsen's Artful Dodger who captures the kid kudos. Lanky and awkward as a puppy, Torkildsen manages the calm confidence and mild bluster of the role with style.
Oliver! may not be the Oliver Twist Dickens intended. But as sentimentalized as it is, this story of a homeless child actually does inspire awe in its young audience and a modicum of empathy as well--meeting children at their own level with the dark questions Dickens raises. This is what children's--make that family--theater is all about.