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Dickens With a Twist

Deaf West Theatre troupe mounts a rousing 'sign language musical' version of 'Oliver!'


Bravery, thy name is Deaf West Theatre. The group's intrepid reinterpretation of "Oliver!" as a "sign language musical" may not always succeed: Pacing is occasionally problematic. However, director-adaptor Jeff Calhoun and his talented cast--which consists of both hearing and deaf performers--have created a rousing entertainment suitable for all ages.

Confronted by the sheer scope of Lionel Bart's musical, Calhoun truncates the proceedings to be more in keeping with his small stage capacities, adding a narrator--none other than Dickens himself, who sets up the various scenes by "reading" from the prop book, "Oliver Twist." Dickens is played by stage veteran George McDaniel, who doubles as a satisfyingly creepy Fagin (superbly signed by Koli Cutler).

Inspired by public readings, Calhoun uses the Dickens character as a handy device to tame the urban sprawl of Dickens' London. This story theater approach cleverly streamlines a vehicle that could have overwhelmed the space.

Still, the result is a massive undertaking, underpinned by superb technicians, on stage and off. Robert Steinberg's dank-looking set, brick archways and rough wooden scaffolding provide ample playing areas. Michael Gilliam's lighting design and Douglas Green's sound--augmented by a new sub-woofer sound system that allows deaf audience patrons to feel the music--are critical to the Dickensian ambience. David Zyla's contemporary costumes successfully suggest the era.

Music director Carol Weiss conducts the crack ensemble that accompanies the cast. Her efforts, along with Brian-Paul Mendoza's musical staging, lend a steamroller momentum to the action. It is only when the music stops that the pace occasionally falters.

Calhoun largely avoids stage clutter--no mean feat, since the production requires two performers--one speaking, one signing--for most roles. While some actors are on the sidelines, in other cases both performers--signing and speaking--are central and equal, especially Antoinette Abbamonte and Susan Hoffman, whose combined performance as Nancy is eerily effective. Mirroring one another like doppelgangers of Germanic lore, these two herald an unenviable fate.

Troy Kotsur provides comic relief as Bumble, who is led down the poison ivy path to matrimony by the hilariously lubricious Widow Corney (Carol Kline). Harris Doran is an athletic but emotionally limited Artful Dodger. Joshua Ari Soudakoff makes an adorable Oliver, while Vae plays Sowerberry to pinched perfection. Cast against type, blond and youthful Ryan Schlect invests Bill Sykes with savage intensity.


"Oliver!," Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends June 25. $22. ($12 children under 12.) (818) 762-2773. (818) 762-2782 (TDD). Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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