Gruel and Unusual Punishment

It's no mystery why Lionel Bart's Oliver! is occasionally trotted out for another go-around. This classic British musical, adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel Oliver Twist, features some wonderfully bent characters and a magnificent score. The real puzzle is why Southwest Shakespeare Company is producing this show, which has no connection to its namesake's work.

In the best Dickensian fashion, SSC's goal in presenting Oliver! seems to be the torture of small children. The cute, undertalented conscripts to SSC's stage struggle mightily to perform. Asked to hit notes their tender young vocal chords cannot reach, they are spurred to act when, in fact, they cannot. In the end, the real torture is sustained by the audience, which is made to witness the slow but consummate violation of Bart's vivid adaptation and lush score.

This version of Dickens' tale of a deprived orphan's search for love was originally produced in 1960 in London, and was a smash on Broadway in 1963. It was later revived in the mid-'80s and again in London at the end of 1994, once more to great acclaim. Southwest Shakespeare Company's production, on the other hand, has all the charm of a grammar school talent show. Garron Tanner, the lead, has a voice only a mother could love. If you're not there to see your kid warble his or her way through "Food, Glorious Food," you're merely out ten bucks.

At least the kids have youth as an excuse for their professional inadequacies. The adults who accompany them have fewer reasons for turning in sloppily acted, undersung performances. There are a couple of exceptions: Christopher M. Williams is a fetching Fagin, and Jenee Wright's rendition of "As Long As He Needs Me" is the show's single bright spot.

Oliver! didn't have to be such a monumental waste of time. A successful Oliver! needs to be either a musical or a drama set to music. Director Tracy Dressler can't seem to make up her mind. Her scenes play like filler between songs, and she's put all her energy into herding her jumbo cast up and down and across Mesa Amphitheatre's enormous stage. The result is a lot of prettily assembled crowds, but no real performances.

The preshow shenanigans--meant to duplicate 19th-century "green shows"--prove more entertaining than what follows them, though I could have done without an appearance by the omnipresent Sheriff Joe Arpaio. That cameo and artistic director Kevin Dressler's precurtain sales pitch in shirt sleeves and tie destroy the impression that we've wandered into a 19th-century outdoor theatre.

Of course, a hundred years ago, an actor's lines would not have been lost to jet planes flying overhead or to the numerous audio problems that mark this production. Without adequate miking, several principal vocals are overwhelmed by the dirgelike playing of the 15-piece orchestra.

Perhaps Southwest Shakespeare Company means to fund its next couple of shows with the earnings from this season starter. (Considering the number of kids onstage, SSC should make a killing off the cast members' parents alone.) Whatever the reasoning, I hope the plan doesn't backfire. It's hard enough to get people to attend Shakespearean plays without scaring them off with dreadful productions of esteemed musicals.

Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of Oliver! continues through Saturday, October 12, at Mesa Amphitheatre, Center and University. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela