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Children's Theater Reviews : Brea 'Oliver!' Makes the Orphan Business Look Easy : The musical loses some of its punch with its lighthearted interpretation and equal-opportunity casting.

August 10, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BREA — At last Saturday night's performance of "Oliver!" in Brea, just after Oliver makes his plea for more gruel to a thunderstruck Mr. Bumble, a young girl in the audience turned toward her mother.

"What's gruel?" she whispered.

"It's like soup," replied the mother, "only kind of bland."

This "Oliver!" is a little like that, too. It starts with some fine ingredients: chiefly the central characters and basic story line borrowed from Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," and some memorable tunes by its adapter, Lionel Bart. But problems including an over-large cast and the three directors' apparent fondness for laughs over substance causes the show to lose some of its savor.

Like the orphans' gruel, it's warming as it goes down and it leaves you feeling good for the moment, but you can't help wishing for a bit of meat besides.

Directed and choreographed by Tim Kashani, Sarah Ramsey-Duke and Joshua Eklund and featuring more than 130 local children and adults (most roles are double cast), "Oliver!" continues through Aug. 14 at the Curtis Theatre.

To be fair, Kashani, Ramsey-Duke and Eklund face hurdles that a professional production wouldn't present. This show is co-produced by the city of Brea and the nonprofit Stagelight Family Productions, and the powers that be want to give as many children as possible an opportunity to perform.

The intent is admirable, but the production suffers for it. For example, where 20 or 30 boys would suffice in the workhouse or in Fagin's gang, this show has 70 or 80, and the mechanics of moving such a group around on stage can't help but take a toll.

The female-to-male ratio in the cast poses another dilemma. Not only were most of the workhouse "boys" girls, but the directors chose to alternate two girls in the role of Dodger and a young woman in the part of the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry. Luckily, those in the cast at Saturday's performance were well up to the task.

As Dodger, Jessica Schlenz had a gutsy singing voice and the proper rascally outlook. And Ann Holub's take on Sowerberry was alternately ghoulish and goofball. Her "Beetlejuice"-ish mannerisms and some devilish sight gags thrown into "That's Your Funeral" probably had Mr. Dickens spinning in his grave, but the kids seemed to get a laugh from them.

This wasn't the only time the directors sacrificed the original story for the sake of a lighter touch.

For example, the scene leading up to the favorite "Where Is Love?--Who Will Buy?" was so truncated that audiences unfamiliar with the story had no idea why Oliver was suddenly so grateful, nor a clue as to what the heck he was doing in Mr. Brownlow's house in the first place. (Brownlow makes quick mention of it later on.)

Jon Arehart had an appealing vulnerability as Oliver, though he wasn't up to the musical demands of the role. Louis Lippitt's Mr. Bumble and Michelle Darrah's Widow Courney were well matched in their blustery self-righteousness, but again, the characters that Dickens created as piteously laughable are played way over the top here.

*

The anchors in this cast are Darrell Baker as Fagin, Glen Seibert as Bill Sykes and Ramsey-Duke as Nancy (only Baker alternates in his role; the other two appear in all shows.)

A journeyman character actor, Baker gives us a Fagin that is a nice mix of geniality, deviousness and cowardice, and he adds a needed spark to the musical numbers with his boys. Seibert's Sykes is nastiness personified (what does Nancy see in this guy, anyway?), and his rumbling rendition of "My Name" packs menace aplenty.

Ramsey-Duke obviously has had musical-theater training, and her moments on stage, particularly in numbers such as "It's a Fine Life" and "As Long as He Needs Me" are among the show's high points.

Clowes and Associates' two-level set, comprising several movable stairways ascending to a U-shaped catwalk, provides a nice way around the overcrowding problem on stage: When things get too cramped on the first level, the directors just line the stairs with bodies.

* "Oliver!," the Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. Thursday-Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $7.50 to $9.50. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Jon Arehart, Jordan Duke: Oliver

Jessica Schlenz, Jessica Laulhere: Dodger

Darrell Baker, Scott Ratner: Fagin

Sarah Ramsey-Duke: Nancy

Glen Seibert: Bill Sykes

Louis Lippitt: Mr. Bumble

Michelle Darrah: Widow Courney

Ann Holub, Darrell Baker: Mr. Sowerberry

Laurie O'Remus, Lindsey Kraus: Mrs. Sowerberry

A Brea Youth Theatre presentation of the musical by Lionel Bart, produced by Stagelight Family Productions and the City of Brea, directed and choreographed by Tim Kashani, Sarah Ramsey-Duke and Joshua Eklund. Musical Direction: Kelley Hartranft and Scott Cokely. Sets: Clowes and Associates. Lighting: Kevin Clowes. Sound: Nelsonics.

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