by Tom Elrod
It’s not really a surprise that Charles Dickens’ larger-than-life characters, comic settings and twist-filled plots would make for good musical theater, though it is a bit odd to find his novels, with such focus on class strife, transmuted into family-friendly entertainment. Oliver!, the Tony-award winning musical based on Dickens’s Oliver Twist and playing through Sunday at the North Carolina Theatre, is emblematic of Broadway’s tendency to elevate emotional spectacle over social critique.
Containing a number of catchy songs and charismatic performances, director Richard Stafford’s production follows the familiar tale of the 19th-century orphan Oliver Twist (Sam Poon) and his adventures around London. Broadway veteran Kevin Gray brings wit and charm to sleazy thief Fagin, and Clayton native Nicholas Craft is great as young pickpocket the Artful Dodger. The set, a giant block of rotating buildings, is the exactly the sort of thing you’d like to see in a big musical production.
However, Oliver! simplifies much of the danger of the novel’s criminal world. Fagin is more clown than threat, and the London underworld never feels very dangerous. There are exceptions: Crime boss Bill Sykes (Stephen Tewksbury) is menacing, and there’s a subplot involving his abused girlfriend (Heather Patterson King) that feels lifted from a much darker play.
If this show's general levity is a flaw, it’s a flaw built into the genre himself. Certainly there is much humor in the source material, but the big-budgeted musical’s need to provide spectacle and entertainment unfortunately elides more trenchant material about class and poverty.