In the dreary world of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” there is much evil. In Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” the musical adaptation, the world is more playful, and much of the evil is covered over with sprightly songs. At Quintessence Theater Group in Mount Airy, the show is by turns evil and sprightly — and maybe the most somberly lit musical I’ve seen.
It doesn’t exactly work: Brutally staged violence by the villainous Bill Sikes (Brock Vickers) comes just before and after his mistreated gal (the standout Hanna Gaffney), sprawled on a stage floor, insists she’ll stand by him “As Long as He Needs Me.” The near-starving group of children (a sweet cast here) have a great time executing Kaki Burns’ choreography while they’re being treated like dirt in a workhouse. While heavy-handedness abounds, Oliver playfully runs from his pursuers across various long tabletops that become stages on the theater’s main floor, where some of the audience sits.
Quintessence artistic director Alex Burns stages the show and tries to create, in his program-note words, a bankrupt social democracy post-Brexit. But Burns is working with Bart’s script and score, which follows the basic “Oliver Twist” plot in a musical form that doesn’t — and can’t — carry the weight of social commentary. That heavy task was Dickens’ job and he did it with impact. But then, he wasn’t writing an essentially feel-good musical.
As a result, we get a show from Quintessence that tries to be a yummy candy mint and a serious breath mint, without the material that allows for both to gel. I visited it the other night, late in its run — a successful one that’s been extended through Dec, 30. I came away with the feeling that what I just witnessed was somehow incomplete. I saw glimmers of the gravitas and many flickers of the fun. It’s the fun that has made “Oliver!” work since the ’60s, when it premiered in London. The gravitas, it seems to me, is best left to some other adaptation.
So the best way to approach this “Oliver!” is through its music, not the show’s dark staging. No matter what sort of weight you press onto the show’s theme, Bart’s memorable music is what matters. (Certainly less than the plot, which is slow to build and hard to follow toward the end — particularly in the garbled loudness of this production, which has no sound designer and shows it.)
The show’s Fagin, the leader of the young street thieves he houses and feeds, is Wallace Acton. He struts around the theater as he delivers “Reviewing the Situation” and happily educates Oliver in “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” Acton is a teddy bear with the undertone of a grizzly bear — he’s the least frightening Fagin I’ve seen, in a show that sets out to be the most frightening “Oliver” you’ll see. How that happens, I can’t say, but I found Acton’s portrayal smart and refreshing.
The bittersweet “Who Will Buy?” offered on an early London morning as street sellers begin hawking their wares, is solid. So is the singing, dancing and acting by Lyam David Kilker, the child who portrayed Oliver at the performance I saw Wednesday. Benjamin Snyder plays the title role on different nights. Jacob Entenman is a charismatic Artful Dodger, the chief among pickpockets. Bradley Mott and Eleni Delopoulos are the mean keepers of the workhouse orphans.
The genteel couple who take pity on Oliver are played warmly by Marcia Saunders and Steven Wright. The rest of the cast offers fine support, and everyone’s best when singing and dancing. The Mudfog Four, a fine quartet of musicians led by pianist Tom Fosnocht, are mercifully careful not to tramp all over the lyrics. The violinist, Kyle Almeida, provides an especially haunting backup to several of the songs.
“Oliver!,” produced by Quintessence Theater Group, runs through Dec. 30 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mount Airy. 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.