On Saturday evening, I finally got to see Playhouse on the Square's current production of Oliver! I went in with high expectations of this wonderful show by Lionel Bart based largely on the reputation of Memphis' professional theater troupe. Oliver! has fond memories for me as well; I have had the good fortune to be involved with two wonderful productions so far in my career. Saturday evening's performance had some surprises and some obvious downfalls. Here's my take on how things went.
First, let me acknowledge that I did see the production during its final weekend on stage. I know the stress that is placed upon the voice over the course of a show's run. I am also aware of the difficulty of keeping a role fresh night after night. Now that I've made the disclaimer, here's what I heard and saw.
This was my first visit to Playhouse's new home on the corner of Union and Madison. What an amazing space! Very intimate in feel, yet able to accommodate a sizable audience. My seat was near the back of the house, yet I felt as though the players were within reach; such a nice effect for the audience.
I expected a sterling performance by Dave Landis in the role of Fagin and anticipated that the youngster playing Oliver (Ty Lenderman) would be the best that Memphis had to offer. To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement. Landis' portrayal of Fagin was not bad, but flat. Many times, it felt as though Fagin was slipping into the background--too far for my taste--rather than providing the support the other members of the cast desperately needed. Musically, the character was unmoving. Landis' rendition of "Reviewing the Situation" was superb (not that the music director assisted him much), but by that late point in the show, I had already checked out and was ready for the final curtain.
Oliver himself was painful at moments. Lenderman was cute and looked the role. His dancing was quite good. While his acting was stilted at times, I can even forgive that transgression. But to mutilate beloved songs such as "Where is Love?" is unforgivable! Ty's voice had a gentle, pure quality at times and showed great promise. However, as he moved into the lower registers, he began to take on this pushed belting sound that was contrived and completely out of character. (Imagine a child trying to imitate an adult man's sound while throwing in a bit of Ethel Merman....that's what it sounded like!) Understand, I do not fault Ty for this; I hope to see him back on stage again with the support of a strong musical director that can help him produce the best performance possible. The issue here was the inexperience of the musical director of the show (making his debut with this production). All of the children were singing with a choral "hoot" common in elementary education but inappropriate for the stage. From the opening song, "Food, Glorious Food," I knew we were in for a long night.
Diction was another source of annoyance, but not in the singing where you would expect me to complain. The cast as a whole had been coached in an English dialect due to the setting of the show in Victorian London. While it was effective for the most part in the singing, the dialogue had so many variations of dialect and levels of enunciation that it was impossible at times to understand the actors' mumblings. The worst offender in this aspect was the actor portraying Mr. Bumble (Bryan Robinson). I could overlook singing all of the high A's in "Boy for Sale" in falsetto as well as the general buffoonery of his characterization. However, don't waste my time by attempting an accent that so totally distorts the language that I cannot understand your lines. There is something to be said for the willing suspension of disbelief! As an audience member, I can accept southern accents in London; just let me hear the story.
Despite the negative aspects of the show, there were some wonderful moments as well. First and foremost, the performance given by Stephen Andrew Parker as the Artful Dodger was tremendous! Parker is the all-around performer: beautiful voice, clean dancing, and solid acting. What more could a director ask for? Throughout the evening, I looked forward to Dodger's appearances on stage; Oliver! owes this talented performer for much of its success during this recent run.
The highlight of the evening for this musical director was the adult ensemble. Their gusto combined with fine individual voices created a moving experience into the Dickensian world. "Who Will Buy?" was a treat for the ears as the quartet of singers sang beautifully. An unexpected gift came at the end of this number; a young rose seller (Sydney Bell) sang the final appearance of the theme. The voice was amazing and worth the price of admission! Why Playhouse has not mounted a production of Annie or some similar show as a vehicle for this child actress is beyond me! Her performance as Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe received great reviews and this theater-goer is ready to see her on stage again.
Will I return to Playhouse on the Square? Certainly. It is one of the finest theaters we have in the area and they constantly produce high-quality work. I will just be a bit more reserved in my expectations, especially when attending a musical in the future.