'Oliver!' Holiday Success for Wagon Wheel

In 1838, British novelist Charles Dickens penned his second novel, “Oliver Twist.,” the grim tale of an orphaned lad surrounded by a harsh world and its even harsher inhabitants.

Put some music to the definitely-not-for–Disney plot, soften one or two of the hardcore characters, add a bundle of dirty faced-but-lovable young criminals-in-training and you have ”Oliver!” Lionel Bart’s award-winning musical which opened Friday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Right off the bat you wouldn’t say “Oliver!” was a holiday story. Certainly nothing like Dickens’ No. 1 Christmas tale , “A Christmas Carol,” but there certainly are enough Scrooge-like characters to make it qualify for pre-redemption honors.

What attracts audiences to this musical version is not only the definitely hummable score but the final win for the good guys. In spite of early years that would have crushed a less vulnerable hero, the tiny teen sails through seemingly unscathed. In the person of Parker Irwin, WW’s Oliver, it seemed only right.

Director/choreographer Scott Michaels again has assembled a practically perfect cast. In addition to Irwin, who sings beautifully, delivers lyrics and dialogue with intelligent clarity and rightfully draws a tear with the poignant “Where Is Love?,” the leading players are, without exception, at the top of their game. And the game here, to quote another famed Brit, is definitely afoot.

[caption id="attachment_430" align="alignleft" width=""]Oliver!  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INNancy (Kira Lace Hawkins) outlines for the boys ways to make sure they have a fine life in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of OLIVER!. [/caption]

In 1838, British novelist Charles Dickens penned his second novel, “Oliver Twist.,” the grim tale of an orphaned lad surrounded by a harsh world and its even harsher inhabitants.

Put some music to the definitely-not-for–Disney plot, soften one or two of the hardcore characters, add a bundle of dirty faced-but-lovable young criminals-in-training and you have ”Oliver!” Lionel Bart’s award-winning musical which opened Friday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Right off the bat you wouldn’t say “Oliver!” was a holiday story. Certainly nothing like Dickens’ No. 1 Christmas tale , “A Christmas Carol,” but there certainly are enough Scrooge-like characters to make it qualify for pre-redemption honors.

What attracts audiences to this musical version is not only the definitely hummable score but the final win for the good guys. In spite of early years that would have crushed a less vulnerable hero, the tiny teen sails through seemingly unscathed. In the person of Parker Irwin, WW’s Oliver, it seemed only right.

Director/choreographer Scott Michaels again has assembled a practically perfect cast. In addition to Irwin, who sings beautifully, delivers lyrics and dialogue with intelligent clarity and rightfully draws a tear with the poignant “Where Is Love?,” the leading players are, without exception, at the top of their game. And the game here, to quote another famed Brit, is definitely afoot.

Oliver!  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw IN

The wild assortment of characters is attacked with gleeful gusto by the performers, young and old. Returning to create another memorable character (last season he was Kris Kringle) is Robert J. Miller as Fagin, the ultimate pinchpenny, a scurrilous thief whose kinder nature surfaces only infrequently. Instructing his “boys” on how to “Pick A Pocket or Two” or considering his future options while “Reviewing The Situation,” Miller’s Fagin is a solid, multi-level characterization. (Love the “do” a la Benjamin Disraeli!)

WW veteran Michael Yocum adds yet another wild persona to his list as Mr. Bumble, the beadle, operator of the boys’ workhouse and bombastically cautious suitor of the wealthy and predatory Widow Corney, played with devilish determination by Hannah Hammond. Their duet “I Shall Scream” sets new lines for a will she/won’t he courtship. His “Boy for Sale” is both menacing and moving.

Another of Bart’s fast-paced duets is well-handled by Kenneth D’Elia and Mary-Elizabeth Milton as Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, undertakers who describe their trade in “That’s Your Funeral.” Bill Sykes is the completely evil villain of the piece and Brett J. Frazier makes a frightening entrance with “My Name.”

Another of the outstanding leading players was a regular in the WW 2012 season. Kira Lace Hawkins is one of those wonderfully adaptable singer/actors who can successfully portray a wide variety of ages and types. As Nancy, Bill Sykes fatally faithful girlfriend, she stops the show with “As Long As He Needs Me,” and leads the ensemble in the rousing “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-Pah-Pah,” two wonderful up-tempo tunes sure to linger after the final blackout.

Others are delivered with unfailing energy by the outstanding ensemble of young performers. “Food, Glorious Food” needs no introduction and “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything” and “Be Back Soon” are equally toe-tapping. Leading the boys is the multi-talented Lucas Thomas as Jack Dawkins aka The Artful Dodger.

Then there is the production itself. With a set designed by the late Roy Hines for a past “Oliver!” and lit with gloomy intensity by Seifallah Salotto-Cristobal; costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck which add color whenever possible; Chris Pollnow’s pin-drop sound design; a nine-piece orchestra led by arranger/keyboardist Thomas N. Sterling which manages to sound like at least 30 pieces; and the non-stop, sharply-executed choreography for which Michaels is justly well-known, this “Oliver!” is a great big Christmas present for the entire family, without a ho-ho-ho in sight.

“OLIVER” plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 16 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street, Warsaw. For show times and ticket information, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

"She Loves Me' Tells Familiar Tale

In theater, as in many other categories, the test of time eliminates lesser vehicles and rewards others not only by the survival of the original but also by its success in other concepts.

Such a vehicle opened Friday evening on the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage. The 1963 Broadway hit “She Loves Me” traces its plot back about a century to “Parfumerie,’ a play by Hungarian writer Miklos Laslo.

From there it skipped to Hollywood and the 1940 comedy, “The Little Shop Around the Corner,” with characters, setting (Budapest, Hungary) and plotline in tact. The 1949 cinema incarnation was not so true to its roots, with “In the Good Old Summertime” featuring the addition of lots of music plus singing, dancing and a good old American setting. (Note: Both are shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies.)

The final film, very loosely based on the original, was “You’ve Got Mail,” again without music. Its modern time frame found email replacing the handwritten notes that originally connect the unknowing lovers.

All that brings us to this most-produced version, which retains the original locale and setting and music. Although the story’s timeline covers a year, the final segments focus on the holiday season, making it an appropriate offering in the pre-Christmas slot. This is not surprising as it takes place almost entirely in a small haberdashery which, eventually, is gearing up for Christmas sales.

The lovely score — music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick — contains beautiful ballads, lighthearted comedy songs and clever chorus numbers. All, with the possible exception of the title tune, are probably familiar only to the most avid musical comedy buffs.

In theater, as in many other categories, the test of time eliminates lesser vehicles and rewards others not only by the survival of the original but also by its success in other concepts.

Such a vehicle opened Friday evening on the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage. The 1963 Broadway hit “She Loves Me” traces its plot back about a century to “Parfumerie,’ a play by Hungarian writer Miklos Laslo.

From there it skipped to Hollywood and the 1940 comedy, “The Little Shop Around the Corner,” with characters, setting (Budapest, Hungary) and plotline in tact. The 1949 cinema incarnation was not so true to its roots, with “In the Good Old Summertime” featuring the addition of lots of music plus singing, dancing and a good old American setting. (Note: Both are shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies.)

The final film, very loosely based on the original, was “You’ve Got Mail,” again without music. Its modern time frame found email replacing the handwritten notes that originally connect the unknowing lovers.

All that brings us to this most-produced version, which retains the original locale and setting and music. Although the story’s timeline covers a year, the final segments focus on the holiday season, making it an appropriate offering in the pre-Christmas slot. This is not surprising as it takes place almost entirely in a small haberdashery which, eventually, is gearing up for Christmas sales.

The lovely score — music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick — contains beautiful ballads, lighthearted comedy songs and clever chorus numbers. All, with the possible exception of the title tune, are probably familiar only to the most avid musical comedy buffs.

She Loves Me  South Bend Civic Theatre South Bend INAlthough most of the music is assigned to the eight major characters, and serves primarily to move the plot along, the chorus is supplied solidly by the various customers of Maraczek’s shop. From “Sounds by Selling” to the increasingly frantic “Twelve Days to Christmas,” the seven members of the ensemble blend fully and well whether they are strollers, shoppers, café patrons or carolers.

Director Jewel Abram-Copenhaver is fortunate in having a good percentage of leading players with sure and strong voices. Especially effective are Natalie MacRae as Amalia Balash, newest clerk; Sean Leyes as Georg Nowack, longtime employee; Will Heckaman as Steven Kodaly, womanizing salesman; and Dominic Go as Arpad Laszlo, ambitious stock boy.

MacRea and Leyes are appealingly awkward as the antagonistic co-workers who unknowingly are romantic pen pals. Her clear soprano easily handles the wide range required by “Vanilla Ice Cream” and “Will He Like Me?” and Leyes literally bounces up and down the aisle stairs while expressing his infectious joy on discovering “She Loves Me.”

Heckaman has a great exit song in “Grand Knowing You” and Go lets out all the stops convincing his boss to “Try Me.” Veteran Steve Chung as Hugo Maraczek delivers a touching portrayal of a betrayed husband living in “Days Gone By.” Completing the list of his longtime employees are Roy Bronkema as Ladislav Sipos, Georg’s sympathetic friend, and Sara Beudert as Ilona Ritter, single lady looking for love.

Music director Rebecca Wilson and the four member ensemble do a solid job and scenic designer David Chudzynski uses the “less is more” theory to good advantage, going from outside to in and back with the turn of rolling platforms.

There were a few technical glitches Saturday evening and the costumes were probably period-correct, I am guessing the 1930s, but there was no specific time designated. The choreography chores were assigned to three people, proving that “sharing the wealth” is not always the best choice.

“SHE LOVES ME” plays Wednesday through Sunday through Dec. 16 in the theater at 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For information and reservations call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.