Charles Dickens's second novel, "Oliver Twist," is the story of an orphan born in a workhouse, sold into apprenticeship, escapes to the streets and takes up with a gang of child pickpockets led by the colorful Fagin.
The stark realism of the book and its gritty portrayal of the underbelly of life in London is said to have been inspired by the tale of Robert Blincoe. Blincoe’s account of life in a workhouse was popular just before Dickens's tale hit the shelves in 1837. Dickens brightlines the social issues of his time in this proto-social novel.
Oliver Twist has been adapted for various media, but most notably the highly successful musical, "Oliver!," which led to the 1968 motion picture and its multiple Academy Awards. It is obvious from the moment the curtain rises and the angelic voices of the 15 children begin to sing "Food, Glorious Food," one of the most iconic songs in musical history, that you are in for a satisfying evening.
I try to keep from gushing in this column, I do try keep a critical eye but let me say that the voices throughout the entire production are simply spectacular. As a theatre professional, I have lost count of how many productions of "Oliver!" I have seen, but after seeing Musical Theatre West's production, I feel like I haven’t seen it until now.
MTW’s production touts a stellar cast of 35 performers and a full orchestra, whose credits span the gamut from Regional to Broadway, and it shows. Davis Gaines's embodiment of Fagan is full of heart and sparkle. With a presence and voice that is warm, commanding and vulnerable he lets you into a world created by a wounded man who was clearly once a wounded boy. There are moments where he brings a childlike playfulness to Fagan and then quickly snaps back to defensive adult...and that voice!
Cayman Ilika will move you to tears as the enabling yet strong Nancy. Her rousing act two solo is delightful, but Ilika's treatment of the classic ballad "He Needs Me" moves your heart. Again, here is an actor who has found new complexity in a character typically played as a pure victim. Her powerful physical presence paired with her emotional conflict takes Nancy and the audience with her deeper into the character's struggle.
Kenny Landmon as Nancy’s abusive and murderous boyfriend cuts an imposing figure against the beautifully painted backdrops. Vocally and physically imposing, he is absolutely terrifying in the role and a perfect pairing with Ilika’s Nancy. Kudos to director James A. Rocco for casting, as well as guiding this talented group of professionals through a fresh and vital production.
Finally, Travis Burnett as Oliver is every bit as sweet and innocent as you expect. Add to that a voice that is powerful beyond his 12 years of age and you have a performance that will steal your heart. Did I mention that the all the voices are incredible? They are! Go see it!
Oliver continues through Feb. 24 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 6200 E Atherton St. Tickets start at $20 and are available at www.musical.org or by calling (562) 856-1999 or at the MTW box office.