Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Oliver!’ an Ambitious, Lively Musical Ride in Abrams

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Human trafficking, homelessness, domestic abuse, petty crime, homicide, malnutrition, poor-rich gap…

Dressed up in memorable songs and slipped into a story of hope for better times, they are the stuff of the musical “Oliver!” that Abrams Spotlight Productions, Inc. is presenting in Byng Community Theatre in seven more performances to March 24.

The show is filled with all kinds of quirky characters from Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” that musical whiz Lionel Bart fashioned into entertainment with color.

One comforting takeaway: Dickens’ ugly London is long, long, gone.

The production by Abrams Spotlight Productions faces all sorts of challenges – little stage, mixed-experienced players, strict budget – and comes up with a lively piece of community theater fare, with a British accent.

The story: Oliver Twist, a boy who dares to ask for more food in an orphanage, is sold off and bounces between working for an undertaker, getting caught up in a nest of young street thieves led by an engaging old charmer (Fagin) and women from both sides of the tracks who take Oliver to heart. It’s a grim world, and along the way Oliver pauses to wonder in song, “Where is the Love?”

As Oliver, Sadie Smith brings a sense of innocence to the role.

Around Oliver, director Pamela Ann Loberger maneuvers newbies and players with hefty experience.

The show starts with youngsters offering one of the musical’s catchy songs, “Food Glorious Food.”

Braving big roles are Tyler Otto as the shifty Fagin (his biggest role to date) and Justin Norman as the vile Bill Sikes (effective in his first ever role). In real life, Norman has a great job title for people who aspire to be involved in community theater – Continuous Improvement Leader. Helping Otto shape his role is his look – long coat with dense material in an ornate pattern, flashy neckpiece and wizened hair and whiskers. Otto also pays special attention to an accent.

Weaving through to add stability are such performance veterans as Kael Pierquet (The Artful Dodger), Suzie Wons (Widow Corney) and Karen Olson (Mrs. Brownlow).

And then there are the bonus players. Lisa Weldy portrays the stand-by-her-man (no matter what) role of Nancy, bringing large and ringing notes to the meaningful “As Long as He Needs Me” among her lustrous songs. Well-established improvisational comedy performer Mike Eskerkaln applies darkly comical touches to the role of Mr. Bumble, a money grubber with the morals of a tarnished penny (a weird metaphor, but you get the point).

The show and production are quite the smorgasbord. Abrams Spotlight Productions doesn’t lack for ambition (many scene changes, many scenic elements to create), and the troupe’s daring is part of the fascination for what happens in its theater.

***

Creative: Book, music and lyrics – Lionel Bart, based on “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens; director – Pamela Ann Loberger; assistant director/stage manager – Tanya Brehmer; assistant stage manager – Justin Norman; music director – Cate Kopkey; choreographers – Pamela Ann Loberger, Cate Kopkey, Karen Olsen, Abby Frank; costumes – Kimberly Norman; set designers – David Jolly, Bill Koehne; lighting designer – Debra Jolly; linguist/vocal coach – Elizabeth Jolly; graphic artist – Megan Pierquet; props/set decorator – Abby Frank;

Cast:

Oliver – Sadie Smith

The Artful Dodger – Kael Pierquet

Fagin – Tyler Otto

Bill Sikes – Justin Norman

Nancy – Lisa Weldy

Mr. Bumble – Mike Eserkaln

Widow Corney – Suzie Wons

Mr. Sowerberry/Knife Grinder – Joshua Perkins

Mrs. Sowberberry – Kimberly Nichole Norman

Charlotte – Sydney Surber

Noah Claypole – Brady Cox

Bet – Eleanor Finger

Mrs. Brownlow – Karen Olsen

Old Sally – Kimberly Nichole Norman

Mrs. Bedwin – Sophia Wons

Dr. Grimwig – Travis Rysewyk

Matron/Milkmaid/Ensemble – Abby Frank

Charley Bates – James-William Charles Perkins

Bow Street Runner/Ensemble – Jeff Pierquet

Rose Seller/Ensemble – Betsy Finger

Strawberry Seller/Ensemble – Breanna Duncan

Workhouse Kids/Fagin’s Kids/Ensemble – Jorgie Runnerstrom, Maria Ronk, Alyssa Peterson, Alaina Blaser, Nick Blaser, Gavin Runnerstrom, Jaycie Norman, Sawyer Norman

Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes

Remaining performances: 1 and 7 p.m. March 16, 1 p.m. March 17, 7 p.m. March 22, 1 and 7 p.m. March 23 and 1 p.m. March 24

Info: abramsspotlightproductions.com

***

Music (recorded)

Act I

Prologue

“Food, Glorious Food” Oliver, Kids

“Oliver” – Mr. Bumble, Widow Corney, Kids

“I Shall Scream” – Mr. Bumble, Widow Corney, Kids

“Boy for Sale” – Mr. Bumble

“That’s Your Funeral” – the Sowerberrys, Mr. Bumble

“Where Is Love?” – Oliver

“Consider Yourself” – The Artful Dodger, Company

“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” – Fagin, Boys

“Rum-Tum-Tum” – Fagin

“It’s a Fine Life” – Nancy, Bet, Boys

“I’d Do Anything” – Nancy, The Artful Dodger, Oliver, Bet, Fagin, Boys

“Be Back Soon” – Fagin, Boys

Act II

“Oom-Pah-Pah” – Nancy, Company

“My Name” – Bill Sikes

“As Long as He Needs Me” – Nancy

“Where Is Love?” (Reprise) – Mrs. Bedwin

“Who Will Buy?” – Oliver, Company

“It’s a Fine Life” (Reprise) – Nancy, Fagin, Bill Sikes, The Artful Dodger

“Reviewing the Situation” – Fagin

“Oliver!” (Reprise) – Mr. Bumble, Widow Corney

“As Long as He Needs Me” (Reprise) – Nancy

“Reviewing the Situation” (Reprise)” – Fagin

***

NEXT: “Footloose” musical – June 21-23, 28-30.

VENUE: The 161-seat Byng Community Theater is located at 5852 Maple St. in Abrams. The theater is the former St. Louis Catholic Church, built in 1927. Seating is in (recently updated) individual padded chairs (replacing wooden pews). Roman arched windows from the former church are have been uncovered, revealing eight stained-glass windows. Wooden walls and the ceiling panels made of compressed cardboard are painted black (a recent change, replacing geometric decorations and, on the walls, displays of cast-signed Abrams Spotlight Productions show posters). Another recent update is removal of carpeting to reveal wooden flooring that is refinished, or in some places, replaced with new flooring. Recently added in the center of the center aisle flooring is the image of the classic comedy/drama theater masks. In the back of the theater is a concession area that serves pop, popcorn, candy and light alcoholic beverages that may be consumed in the theater.

THE PEOPLE: The theater company was founded in 2003 by director, actor and former troupe president Brandon Byng and his great-aunt, Nancy Byng, who died in 2011.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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