Review: Insight Theatre's 'Oliver' Will Have You Asking For More

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

The first musical adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel to become a hit, “Oliver,” opened last weekend at the Insight Theatre Company. Based on Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” the story tells the tale of an orphan boy who is sold into domestic slavery to an undertaker, escapes only to be taken in by Fagin and his group of underground adolescent pickpockets, and then after being arrested, serendipitously ends up living in an upper class household (with it’s own surprise twist). The show is presented as though at an English music hall of the period, and it’s a rich visual delight.

Alan, Knoll, Ronan Ryan and Spencer Davis Milford Courtesy Insight Theatre

Alan, Knoll, Ronan Ryan and Spencer Davis Milford
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

The Lionel Bart musical takes a notable departure from the Dickens novel by making Fagin (Alan Knoll), a comedic character rather than a supremely villainous one. Knoll handles the kinder, gentler role skillfully, revealing Fagin to actually have some affection for his bastardly band of baby burglars—though that may be simply appreciation for the scarves, trinkets and wallets they bring him, for he can turn on them in an instant when money is involved. Knoll’s interpretation is spot on, though don’t expect the amazing dancing agility the Fagin displays in the film—but then, who among us can claim to be Ron Moody’s equal in this regard? Nevertheless, Knoll is excellent, including his singing on “You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two,” and “Reviewing the Situation.”

Ronan Ryan as Oliver Courtesy Insight Theatre

Ronan Ryan as Oliver
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

Ronan Ryan, as Oliver Twist, might have been pulled directly from the famous film adaptation. With his angelic face and sweet voice, he’s a dead ringer for the young actor in the film, and he’s fun to watch, like when he’s stuffed violently into a casket as punishment, Ryan was having such a good time he had a big grin on his face. While not appropriate from an acting standpoint, it’s totally appropriate from a kid standpoint, and that just made me enjoy him all the more. And of course he delivers the line that has become a part of pop culture, “Please, Sir, may I have some more.” So…

Mrs. Corney (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) and Mr. Brumble (Marc Strathman) Courtesy Insight Theatre

Mrs. Corney (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) and Mr. Brumble (Marc Strathman)
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

Please, Sir, may I have some more, of these performers? In addition to Knoll and Ryan, there are fine performances by Marc Strathman as officious workhouse headmaster, Mr. Brumble and his would-be paramour, Mrs. Corney, delightfully and hilariously portrayed by Jenifer Theby-Quinn. Micheal Brightman and Jenni Ryan are appropriately dour and sour as the undertaker and his wife, while Spencer Davis Milford exemplifies the cockiness of The Artful Dodger. Cherlynn Alvarez is exemplary as Nancy, the former Fagin protege’ and mother figure to Oliver, who sings a heart-wrenching rendition of, “As Long As He Needs Me.” Michael Amoroso is menacing as Bill Sykes, and Troy Turnipseed lends an air of aristocracy, as well as compassion, to Mr. Brownlow.

The littlest of the kid's chorus. Courtesy of Insight Theatre

The littlest of the kid’s chorus.
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

Please, Sir, may I have some more of these kids? The children’s chorus is simply wonderful, and possibly the best all around grouping of kids in a musical you will ever see. While all of them are excellent and committed to the story, special kudos are due to the three littlest girls who define, “adorable.” They are committed to their roles wholeheartedly, and as such, were delightful every time they caught the eye, and added much to the production as a whole.

Cherlynn Alvarez as Nancy Courtesy Insight Theatre

Cherlynn Alvarez as Nancy
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

Please, Sir, may I have some more of this set? Peter and Margary Spack (who are becoming known simply as The Spacks) have created a large dark and brooding back wall rife with cleverness; including slats, slits, shingles, brick, sliding panels, opening half-doors, grates and a raised walkway behind, that director Ed Coffield uses to great effect, bringing actors into and out of scenes in a variety of entertaining and surprising ways. Coffield also does an exquisite job staging this show with its very large cast. Pacing is brisk, which is good, but it needed more ebb and flow. The big, critical plot moments—the “please, sir, may I have some more” moment, the recapture of Oliver, the big unlikely reveal near the end, and others—are given no more emphasis than any other random moment in the show. Here, they are breezed through. It oftentimes lacked “beats.”

Please, Sir, may I have some more of orchestra’s like this? The live orchestra, under the direction Charlie Mueller, was outstanding. Located under the stage with just a small opening above them, if you didn’t know they were there you might think the soundtrack was prerecorded, but it was all being played live, which is a remarkable thing for a theater like Insight. This production really pulled out all the stops to kick off this first show of their ambitious season. Which brings us to…

Michael Amaroso as Bill Sykes Courtesy Insight Theatre

Michael Amaroso as Bill Sykes
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

Please, Sir, may I have some more volume? The actors—who wore head mics—were often hard to hear. Pump up the volume a little, could ya? Same goes for the orchestra. Being located under the stage, they were muffled and sounded distant. A little amplification would go a long way, though I realize that after praising the company for their ambition, this would seem odd to criticize for not being technically able to live up to it. No, not at all. It simply would have been better. Once you turn up the volume on the actors, the actors can help with a little over enunciation in their heavy British and cockney accents. Sure, governor, just turn up da volume, enunciate an’ Bob’s yaaahr uncle, innit.

Alan Knoll as Fagan Courtesy Insight Theatre

Alan Knoll as Fagin
Courtesy of Insight Theatre

Please, Sir, may I have some more Insight Theatre? Insight is the biggest secret in St. Louis (and one of the biggest bargains). They consistently do excellent productions in a great, comfortable space (and incidentally just got accepted into Actor’s Equity as a Small Performance Theater). “Oliver” is yet another such production, one that also features exceptionally good costumes, by Laura Hanson, and lighting design by Seth Jackson. Why more people don’t know about them is a mystery. Perhaps they need to invest in a good marketing, PR person (Hint: I’m available, part time of course.) Don’t Webster Grovians know about this theater? Take these delightful kids and some of the adult cast, put them in costume, get a smallish marching band, and march up and down the street in historic Webster Groves singing, “Consider Yourself.” Have someone film it and put it on youtube. Beat your drum. Word will spread.

I’ll do my part, “Blimey! All yew got ter do is go down there, buy a ticket an’ Bobs yaaahr uncle. Nuff said, yeah?”

“Oliver” continues at Insight Theatre through June 22. For tickets and information visit the Insight Theatre website.

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