Colm Feore, Scott Beaudin, and Tyler Pearse
in Oliver!
(Photo © David Hou)
Colm Feore, Scott Beaudin,
and Tyler Pearse in Oliver!
(Photo © David Hou)
After 15 seasons at the Stratford Festival -- and an avalanche of accolades and conquests spanning Broadway, film, and TV --Colm Feore might be excused if he were growing a mite satiated or complacent. But on the Saturday afternoon that I saw him in Lionel Bart's Oliver!, he was just warming up; that evening, he would portray Shakespeare's Coriolanus with riveting vitality and absorbing nuance in the same 1824-seat Festival Theatre. (In August, he will add the title role in Don Juan to his repertoire.)

Unfortunately, despite Feore's considerable charisma as Fagin, this Oliver! is a rather tepid affair. Nor will it console Stratford's marquee star to share the blame with the show's director-choreographer, since she happens to be his wife, Donna Feore.

Things start promisingly. Presenting Dickens' kaleidoscopic tale of London high life and low life on a thrust stage is a design challenge, but Santo Loquasto's set, dominated by a two-tiered swiveling gantry, straddles many of these difficulties quite ingeniously. The structure stows away discreetly in the background during the opening scenes at the orphanage and at Oliver's first true home among the coffins at Mr. Sowerberry's mortuary. As the plucky orphan's picaresque adventures take him to Fagin's lair and then to the saloon where barmaid Nancy reigns, the upper level of the gantry becomes more prominent in the action.

Loquasto's design, coupled with his superlative costumes, works best in "Consider Yourself," when Oliver is welcomed into Fagin's thieving fraternity and the stage teems with grimy street urchins, engagingly choreographed by Ms. Feore. Cunningly, the swiveling capabilities of the gantry are held in reserve until the climactic murder on London Bridge and the police chase that ensues. Then the bend in the structure is straightened out, and the edge of the "bridge" nearly reaches the apex of the Festival Theatre's semicircular thrust to thrilling effect.

The stage remains too bare, however, to evoke the beautiful London morning extolled by Oliver in "Who Will Buy?" Here, Feore relies on earthbound geometrical patterns in choreographing her street sellers, and Loquasto's costumes, while vernal in their brightness, are uniform and monochromatic. The Feores drain the show of its color in numerous other instances. You won't find a wisp of ethnicity in his renditions of "Pick a Pocket or Two" or "Reviewing the Situation." Further, though we get the sense that this Fagin is significantly closer to a father figure than anything Oliver has experienced before, the actor trades in Fagin's craftiness, flamboyance, and craven cowardice for the mien of a calculating and pragmatic businessman, seemingly bound by circumstances to be crooked.

As Oliver, Tyler Pearse has the right kind of choirboy purity, and Brad Rudy brings all the bullying, cutthroat malevolence one could want to Bill Sikes. But Bruce Dow is neither comical nor particularly cruel as Mr. Bumble, and Scott Beaudin teeters on the brink of wholesomeness as The Artful Dodger, outfitted in a garish costume worthy of Eliza Doolittle in her salad days. Meanwhile, it's hard to accurately judge Blythe Wilson's performance as Nancy, who bears the brunt of Sikes' abuse. Perhaps reacting to the political incorrectness of Nancy's victim mentality, Ms. Feore is largely responsible for making a mess of the character

The Festival Theatre is a wonderful place to get close to a musical; sadly, this Oliver! isn't the one you want so nearby.