By Stacy Santini
Bravo! Bravo! The vociferous roar emanating from the admiring standing spectators after the closing act at Theatre Three last Saturday evening was definitely symbolic of the caliber of Jeffrey Sanzel’s “Oliver!” Sanzel recreates Broadway on our local stage as only he can do with this meritorious musical, once again proving that his ability to recreate classical gems in such an appealing manner is unsurpassed. Adults and children alike gleefully piled into the bustling near sold out theater anticipating how this Dickens masterpiece would unfold; and unfold it did, brilliantly.
Of the numerous adaptations of Charles Dickens’ second novel, “Oliver Twist,” Lionel Bart’s accommodation emphasizes the author’s thematic visions exquisitely, and it is no surprise that Andrew Lloyd Weber credits Bart as the father of the British musical. It premiered at the Wimbledon Theatre on June 30, 1960, and much like the original director/choreographer team of Peter Coe and Malcolm Clare, Theatre Three’s Jeffrey Sanzel and Marquez have created a production of potential award winning magnitude.
“Oliver!” is the tale of a young orphan boy who unbeknownst to him was born into a wealthy lineage. Seemingly destined to a life toiling away in 1800 workhouses, his fate takes a turn when he meets a group of thieving pickpockets masterminded by a man named Fagin. The triumph of good over evil eventually prevails, but the ending is secondary to the journey Oliver must take to reach that destination.
With a cast of 57, many still in middle school, this could not have been an easy feat, but the synchronization, timing and actual performances are so exceptional that the enormity of the show takes a back seat to the world-class depiction as it releases itself to the audience.
The moment Kiernan Urso takes the stage as Oliver viewers are held captive. His sweet, melodic British accent and sympathy-evoking countenance are merely precursors for his performance of the infamous song, “Where Is Love?” It is all over after that as the audience is utterly and completely engrossed in the story line.
As his savior, Mr. Brownlow, played by Ron Rebaldo states, “There is something in that boy’s face,” and yes there is. Kiernan, a sixth-grader at Longwood Middle School, undoubtedly will be adding numerous roles to his repertoire in years to come.
Each actor in this musical has certainly earned his or her placement among this ensemble, but there are a few that not only stand out but soulfully elevate their characters to lofty heights and usher this “Oliver!” into a new dimension.
Dickens’ examination of external influences corrupting what is innately pure could not be depicted without the character of Fagin, portrayed by Sanzel. Not only does he direct “Oliver!” but he also takes the stage as this charismatic charlatan. We are all used to seeing him as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” which he does so phenomenally that one would think it would be an adjustment to see him in another Dickens’ role, but our fears are very quickly laid to rest when he comes out of the gate with a rendition of “Pick a Pocket or Two” and commands the stage with all the veteran finesse to which viewers have grown accustomed. Sanzel has a unique ability to take unsavory characters and make us not only like them but want to know them. The abhorrent behavior Fagin displays is transcended by Sanzel, and as he rouses with his adolescent gang of thieves we are periodically thrown into hysterics with one liners such as “Go to bed or I will sing again.”
Returning to Theatre Three’s stage is the stunning raven-haired Jennifer Collester Tully as Nancy. Her vocal range is superior and she is resplendent in this role. Struggling with her relationship with the repugnant character Bill Sikes, played by Steve McCoy, she brings new meaning to the cliché of a woman standing by her man. Her performance is so heartfelt that as she sings the forlorn, “As Long As He Needs Me,” we are beguiled to the point of tears. Partnering her with the baron of maleficent characters, Steve McCoy, was smart and their chemistry is palpable. As expected, McCoy portrays Sikes as intensely as he does Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol” and Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.”
More than noteworthy are performances by Linda May as Old Sally and Hans Hendrickson as The Artful Dodger. May’s shrill deliverance of her abusive rants are piercing and repugnant, as they should be, and Hendrickson’s Dodger is amusingly coy.
New to the Theatre Three family is Doug Vandewinckel as Beadle Bumble. As one of the initial characters introduced, his presence on stage cannot be overlooked. The banter between him and Widow Corney, played by Phyllis March, is delightful, and the whimsical, “I Shall Scream” is a welcome debut to the comedic elements of the story.
The set sustaining all the mayhem and debauchery is stark and fitting. The costumes and set design induce a feeling of poverty and desperation. Although the simplicity is not indicative of lack of detail, the production staff — including Ellen Michelmore, James Kimmel, Steven Uihlein, Peter Casdia, Alexander Steiner, Tyler D’Accordo, Kristen Lees, Amanda Meyer, Bonnie Vidal, Brad Wilkens, Tim Moran, Michael Quattrone and Jacob Ziskin — have created a daunting synergistic panorama.
The movement upon stage is perfection. Each nuance as choreographed by Marquez seems obligated to sustain the music and acting laid out before the audience. The accompanying orchestra led by Jackson Kohl realizes the purity of Sanzel and Marquez’s vision fully as well and the talent of musicians Mike Chiusano, Marni Harris, James Carroll, Don Larsen and Kohl should not be overlooked.
“Oliver!” is by far one of the finest productions to grace Long Island stages and exactly as it ought to be. It more than entertains — it delivers countless levels of enjoyment and raises the bar for future artistic aspirations universally. Kudos Theatre Three, Kudos.
Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Oliver!” through June 27 on the Mainstage. Tickets range from $15 to $30. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.