By CATHY MATHIAS
With a cast of adorable orphans and talented vocalists, “Oliver!” ranks as one of the best shows ever at Cocoa Village Playhouse. This popular 1960s British musical has never lost its appeal after long runs in London and New York and several revivals, plus the Academy-Award-winning 1968 film version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”
The story begins in an orphanage in 1850s London. Boys line up for their daily gruel (“Food, Glorious Food”), when one orphan — Oliver Twist — has the gall to say “Please sir, I want some more.” This eventual result of this request is Oliver living on the streets. There, he meets a gang of pickpockets who show him the ropes (“Consider Yourself”).
This show with book, music and lyrics by British composer Lionel Bart are so delightful, they actually squeeze fun moments out of the dreary, hardscrabble setting of living on the streets in old London.
In CVP’s production, directed by Anastacia Hawkins Smith and music conducted by Bob Barone, the impoverished orphan, Oliver Twist, is portrayed by Christopher Gursky, a 6th-grader at Lewis Carroll Elementary School. With his peaches-and-cream complexion and blonde hair, this 11-year-old is as steady as a pro on stage. The Artful Dodger, Oliver’s skilled pick-pocket friend who shows him how to live on the streets of cold London, is vibrantly brought to life by John Dudley, an 11th-grader at Rockledge High School. Dudley shows enormous confidence and energy – it’s an absolute joy to watch him.
Fagin, the friendly career criminal who leads the gang of young pick pockets, is played by Gene Hayes, a 20-year veteran of CVP who twirls his long frock coat just like the film character during his song, “I’m Reviewing The Situation.”
Two real stand-outs in this cast are Rachael Levi, a Central Florida resident, whose strong, soaring voice is full of emotion in her portrayal of Nancy in her song “As Long As He Needs Me.” Her love interest, Bill Sykes, a ruthless criminal, is deliciously evil as played by David Robby Mackish. When he appears on stage, dressed all in black, with an enormous dog on a chain, the entire audience recoils at the sight of him.
Ian Cook’s lighting and scenic design evoke 19th-century London with stone walls, leaded glass windows, flickering lamps and a gorgeous digital backdrop of old buildings and softly falling snow. Wendy Bernier, Assistant Director and Choreographer creates lively dances easily managed by a large cast on a small stage as in the song “Consider Yourself.”
Just like Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” the musical “Oliver!” is a fine idea for a holiday show in that it shows the power of redemption. We see sweet Oliver, who has been cast out onto the fringes of society, find love and belonging and ultimately a warm hearth. Its feel-good qualities bring a smile to our faces and the reminder about the power of love.
Side o’ Grits:
“Oliver!” runs through Dec. 14 at the Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. Tickets are to , handling charges may apply. Call 321-636-5050 or visit cocoavillageplayhouse.com.