Kevin Slay directs this current incarnation of the famous British musical where young Joseph Bañuelos portrays Oliver Twist, the starving orphan and protagonist who is booted from the workhouse for daring to ask for more than his ration of food. His greedy and conniving caretakers apprentice Oliver to Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker, but this endeavor ends the next day through a scuffle, and Oliver is plunged headfirst into the seedy criminal underworld of nineteenth-century London through his association with the Artful Dodger and Fagin.
Fagin in Chris Sands’ hands is a Johnny Depp doppelganger, unabashedly flamboyant and fruity, playing shamelessly to the audience. As sleazy and misguided as Fagin is, he also happens to be the protective father-figure, which he demonstrates when he lovingly covers his sleeping, underage band of hoodlums with filthy blankets.
The next day, Oliver meets Nancy, a prostitute and girlfriend of the menacing Bill Sykes, and who becomes Oliver’s motherly protector. Valerie Jasso’s Nancy is spirited and sassy, bearing little resemblance to her victimized and tortured counterpart of Broadway and the big screen, the only torturing being in Bill Syke’s hands. No sooner have we fallen in love with the fair Nancy then she is betrayed by Andy Scott’s one-dimensional Sykes, who coldly snatches Jasso away from us as we are simultaneously assaulted by a haphazard rush towards the grand finale.
Slay, whose previous credits include Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, deftly handles his young charges with energy and exuberance, while his backstage staff makes terrific use of economical stage sets and backlighting to set the mood. Soaring vocals from the ensemble also add to the magic, especially those from Kelley Goode as Widow Corney and Valerie Jasso. Even more impressive is his cast’s skill at being spot on with the working-class British accent, especially from Bañuelos, who maintains Oliver’s sweet naïveté to the very end.
In fact, the only bumps in the road for Slay’s Oliver! is the overly long segue of Fagin in the first act and the mad dash to the finish line in the second. While his take on the working poor is more bright than gritty, more sweet than surly, perhaps to the point where bright and sweet border dangerously on the Disney-esque, this may be appropriate considering his audience (young families with elementary school-aged children). Finally, Slay seems to train his lens too long on the sheer comedic gifts of Sands’, whose Fagin monopolizes the stage to the point of annoyance.
Whatever its misgivings, Oliver! remains as relevant and fresh for our times as it did for Dickens. Besides that, it’s just pure and simple fun. And it provides a realistic dose of medicine for a generation weaned on mass consumerism.
Oliver! at the Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 477-2752, www.lewisfamilyplayhouse.com. Fri, Jul. 17, 7:30PM; Sat., July 18, 2PM, 7:30PM; Sun., July 19, 2PM. $16.