While the production elements of The Walnut are of genuine Broadway quality, these parts do not create a compelling whole for “Oliver”.. Part of the issue is Director Mark Clements parsing of the script thereby creating awkward segues from scene to scene and making for an uneven production.
We all know the story of Charles Dickens' “Oliver Twist”. After Oliver falls in line with The Artful Dodger and Fagin, he is sent out to 'pick a pocket or two'. After our fair haired boy is accused of thievery, the next scene (of this production) miraculously shows him at his grandfather's house. Wow, that was fast. There was scarcely a reason why he went from street urchin to the safe confines of his beneficent grandfather.
Fagin (Hugh Panaro) was the star of the show and came very close to the quintessential Fagin of Ron Moody in the classic movie. The makeup - especially his gnarl y teeth – surely was an hour ritual nightly. Fagin may be the most lovable con man and thief in Broadway musical.
His renditions of “You've Got To Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Be Back Soon” sung to his band of rapscallions, is the perfect concoction of rapacious rascal and loving mentor. “Reviewing The Situation”, a reminiscence of his life and deeds, is poignant. His characterization is worth the admission price alone.
Nancy (Janine DiVita) has many Broadway credits and looks the part of the sensuous lover of evil incarnate Bill Sykes. Her 1830's working class London accent is done to perfection and her songs are delivered with laser true diction. Her voice can hit every octave known to man but she was directed to belt Nancy's signature song “As Long As He Needs Me” whereas a more plaintive, longing interpretation would have been more agreeable. There was “no place to go” in the second act reprise when the belt would have been more logical.
Director Clements interpolated two songs in the show heretofore unsung or unheard. He gave undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Peter Schmitz) an appropriate ditty, “Where's Your Funeral”; a song that did not deserve its exhumation and should be ceremoniously buried.
The poster for the production featured the face of the movie's Oliver, a move I considered a bit strange. Aisle Say loves kids; he loves kids in theatre. He just did not love this particular Oliver (Gregory Smith). While Smith hit all those high notes a boy can hit before his voice changes, he had neither the charisma nor the innocence nor the naivte that one expects in the role. He looked like he was acting.
The set design by Todd Ivins was superb. He studied the gray, foreboding oppressive nature of the book and the times. The scene at Fagin's hideout was something out of Les Mis and the Tower of London in the final scene appeared as if one might reach out and touch those century old stones.
The Walnut's Ensemble dancing is constantly electric and exciting. In the glorious production numbers “Consider Yourself” and “Omm-Pah-Pah” choreographer Mary Jane Houdina created some enlivening and athletic moves right out of Houdini.
There are two childrens' casts for the show, owing to school responsibilities and the duration of the run. Delawarean Sonny Leo is in the Ensemble and shakes and bakes in that jaunty baker cap of his.
Til January 10. WalnutStreetTheatre.org 215.574.3550