Nawww, they're not "fagin" it, they really do seem to love theatre. The Peacock Players, the children's division of the American Stage Festival, performed "Oliver" November 14 and 15 at the American Stage Festival's Court Street Theatre and November 20 and 21 at Nashua High School. The young players (all under 16) are an enthusiastic lot and perform the show with high energy and spirit. They know their parts well and appear confident on the stage. This glimpse into the future is very promising; with continued dedication to the art, many of these talented youngsters have the potential to become outstanding adult performers, as well. For the present, some of them are already quite exceptional and worthy of praise for this performance.
"Oliver!" is the story of Oliver Twist, a young orphan who is sold from the orphanage for his insolence. The buyers intend him to be a junior coffin follower, but he doesn't seem to fit in there and runs away. He is taken in by a group of homeless child thieves who are looked after by the miserly but good-natured Fagin and to some extent by an older girl named Nancy and the expert crook, Sykes. On his first day out learning the "trade", Oliver is caught by the wealthy man they were robbing who then looks after him. The thieves are afraid Oliver will talk and get them in trouble, so Sykes orders Nancy to steal him back. She does but realizes how much Oliver wanted to stay there and that Sykes intends to punish him. Nancy covertly arranges to bring Oliver back to the wealthy family which is actually his family. She manages to do this, but it costs her dearly.
Nick Edes who plays Oliver Twist is an exceptional singer and is a perfect choice for the part. He is capable of hitting extremely high notes with talent and power and does a wonderful job with the solo "Where Is Love?" He also looks the part! He has the least pronounced accent, but that works for him. To me the lack of it was hardly noticeable and I doubt he could carry it as well through the songs if he did.
Dan Merriman as Fagin is also terrific; a strong singer and a good character actor whose work I hope to see more of in the future. He looks like a Fagin with the long grey hair and old man make-up, and he is very lovable in his miserly confused way. Owen O'Reilly effects the evil nature of Bill Sykes very realistically including extreme violence depicted towards Nancy (Carrie Spaulding) which made at least one person in the audience (Mom?) gasp his name "Owen!" aloud in shock (Good job, kid! Mom, it's just acting) as Nancy is slapped, shoved down, and kicked in gut. Nancy herself is very sweet and loyal to Sykes despite his animosity towards her. Spaulding is a very good singer and actress who only lacks enough volume to be heard on both sides of the auditorium at once.
Kate Harwood excels as the overly dramatic Mrs. Sowerberry, particularly as she frantically cries whilst sitting on the coffin which holds the oh-so-dangerous child, Oliver. This follows the scene in which Noahs Claypole's insulting comments to Oliver incense him to chase Noah around the room in a well choreographed chase scene and they end up in fisticuffs. David Quay as Noah is quite a ham right from his noisy entrance and does a great job with his character throughout.
Lori Kurzman is very good as Widow Corney and is able to carry both the songs "Oliver!" and "I Shall Scream" quite nicely despite poor Mr. Bumble's difficulty with the songs. Morgan Hills as Mr. Bumble is humorous and in character, but very difficult to understand as he tries to affect both the deep rumble of Bumble and the heavy English accent and seems to be struggling with either a voice change or a head cold. In any case, there is good interaction between Hills and Kurzman in "I Shall Scream".
Dominic DiBenedetto is successful at portraying the part of the cockeyed streetwise child, The Artful Dodger. He knows his lines cold and doesn't err on any of his many entrances or exits. It's ashame he has tried quite so hard on the accent, as he affects it so much that he's a bit hard to understand. He does a great job at his solo at the beginning of "Consider Yourself". He is also good at the acting in "I'll Do Anything" and is able in this song to switch accents from a low brow to an upper class English accent as do the others in this song.
"Oliver!" can't work at all without a well organized and enthusiastic chorus. Fortunately, that is not a problem for this group. The chorus is well organized and for the most part they harmonize well and sing strongly. The girls who are Fagin's boys do a good job handling the role reversal. It's ashame that this musical lacks a theme song or refrain that is repeated throughout the show, but that is hardly the fault of the players. Also, one lone piano player, as excellent as she is, seems hardly enough to support this musical. Kudos to Michelle LaLiberte for doing a creditable job on this huge task.
After a few bobbles on "Food, Glorious Food" which also gave them a bit of difficulty because of the high pitch required, I noticed no other glitches in the sometimes complicated choreography on the many songs that the orphans and Fagin's boys (the chorus) sing. There is some problem with projection, but given that they aren't using any microphones in a wide auditorium, they do fairly well. Best of all are "Consider Yourself", "It's a Fine Life", and "Who Will Buy". I like the way "Consider Yourself" begins with only Oliver and the Artful Dodger for a couple verses and then the rest of the chorus chimes in as they change sets to Fagin's place.
The next one, "Pick a Pocket or Two" has a wonderfully catchy tune and features the outstanding Dan Merriman as Fagin backed up by the rest of the his boys, but is a bit too busy with movement and the pickpocketing examples not quite flamboyant enough for them to be noticed as well as they might be. My "Oliver!" expert told me that a verse was skipped in this song in which a method of knocking down an old man and taking his valuables is described. Our guess is that this was not a faux pas, but an intentional choice by the director.
I like the way the street sellers enter the auditorium from the sides each singing and carrying what they have for sale in "Who Will Buy?". The girl singing "Who will buy my sweet red roses" has such a lovely and sorrowful tone in her voice as she sings her request that I nearly wanted to buy one!
Costumes are well done and effective for the roles, especially Oliver's jacket, the Artful Dodger's patchwork coat, the vests of all the chorus "boys", Fagan's big overcoat, Widow Corney's bonnet, and Nancy's dress. Makeup is well done on all the characters, especially that of Fagin and the sooty faces of Fagin's boys. The set, which was minor, could have been improved, especially for the scene at London Bridge, which depended more on lighting than set. Lighting was basic, but sufficient.
This show has excellent flow overall, although the ending seems rushed and is a bit confusing particularly the scene on London Bridge. There are almost no mistakes and the minor ones are well covered. Congratulations to the Peacock Players for a job well done on "Oliver!" I look forward to the next presentation by the Peacock Players, the musical "West Side Story" as I'm sure that will also be high quality entertainment.
My thanks to my "Oliver!" expert who was one of Fagin's boys twenty years ago in the American Children's Theater group in Manchester and still remembers every single line and who accompanied me and gave me very useful comments.