Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A. S. Waterman
By Lionel Bart
Directed by Graham Gill
Executive Producer: Kenneth H. Gentry
Set Design: Adrian Vaux
Fagin..... Mark McCracken
Nancy..... Renata Renee Wilson
Bill Sikes..... Shane R. Tanner
Mr. Bumble..... Ken Clement
Widow Corney..... Gwen Eyster
Noah Claypole..... Justin Wilcox
Mr. Brownlow..... Kerry Sensenbach
Oliver..... Justin S. Pereira
The Artful Dodger..... Andrew Blau
Charley Bates..... Carl Johnson
And many more.....
It takes a lot to get me to go to the Providence Performing Arts Center. I look at it with as much dread as going to a crowded airport during a holiday travel week: being herded like cattle shoulder-to-shoulder in a tiny anteroom, ordered about, and being crammed into seating rows so tight that they would make an airline blush. Add to that the poor reputation of most of the recent touring shows, and the productions at the PPAC are usually the last on my priority list. However, occasionally there is a show that I simply must see, and OLIVER! is one of those. In addition, the Providence Journal critic actually praised this show (an event so newsworthy in itself that it proclaimed itself loudly on the front page of their Entertainment section), which meant that I had to check it out.
The show itself was well done -- at least I think it was. Poor visibility and an extremely poor sound system hampered the ability to evaluate much of it. Dodging the Foosball-like rows of heads as the orchestra-level audience swayed back-and-forth in unison trying to see anything at all, as well as trying to decipher the sound from the tiny DJ-sized speakers in the huge theater (some of them suspended like an ugly wasp's nest from the gilded apex) made much of the evening difficult.
Here is what I can state with some certainty. The sets and atmosphere were excellent, adding quite a bit of Dickensian ambiance to the show, a definite improvement over pseudo-Broadway glitz and glitter. Some of the performances, such as Mark McCracken's gaunt and eerie Fagin, were intriguing and unique, albeit a bit bland. One high spot of the performance was Renata Renee Wilson's outstanding solo on the powerful song "As Long as He Needs Me" -- at least I think it was hers, as the show was preceded by an announcement of a substitution in a female part, but the sound quality was too garbled to identify the name of the actress. Although it was evident that this performer has a phenomenal voice, her solos on other numbers were disappointing, as either the poor sound system or sound system operator cut out most of her range. Indeed, when she and the cast performed "Oom-Pah-Pah," I had to mentally go through the list of songs in OLIVER! in order to identify the song that was being performed.
This production had some extremely nice touches, such as some Dickensian puns, and some very amusing antics on the part of the children in the cast. Beyond that, not a lot can be said, as a goodly portion of the show went unseen and unheard. OLIVER!, of course, attracts a lot of children, and this show's visibility problems must have been dreadful for them. Indeed, one sobbing little girl behind us finally gave up and begged her parents to take her home at intermission. They did. When the lights went out for Act 2, many other seats were left vacant also, although they rapidly filled up with people trying to get a better seat (for all the good it did them).
A landmark in Providence's so-called cultural revival, the Providence Performing Arts Center remains a vast, glorious monument to the performing arts. However, like many monuments, it no longer serves its original purpose: in this case, bringing those arts to the people. Rather, it seems to have left the audience entirely out of the equation. And without the essential component of an audience that is allowed to appreciate the production, even the best performance is no better than a tree falling in an empty forest.
PPAC and the like, including some of those "landmark" theaters in the Boston area: wake up. We don't care how much space is above our heads in the vaulted ceiling. We care about how much space is available for us to sit comfortably and reach an exit if we have to. We care about being treated as more than an inconvenience to you. And above all, we care about being able to see and hear the show that we came for, and having a reasonable assurance of that when we purchase a ticket.
This reviewer recommends that Providence-area theater-goers spend their ticket money on local productions, such as some of the fine offerings from Trinity Repertory Company, Sandra Feinstein-Gamm and Second Story Theater, among others. They will try much harder to make it worth your while.