By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
With a cast of 68 performers – 38 of them children – the current production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts is not only their biggest, but certainly their most elaborate show.
It’s an opportunity for youngsters to carry much of the heavy lifting beginning with the opening scene of “Food, Glorious Food,” a well-choreographed piece in which the children of the orphanage carry empty bowls and bemoan their empty stomachs. The movement of orphans around the stage with additional adults and older children portraying the caretakers of the dark and dingy waifs home is the first of many scenes that demonstrate a careful and considerate staging of this classic musical.
Clearly, the choreography and direction is top notch and easily explained by the fact that co-artistic director Kelly Fouchi is at the helm of this production, not only serving duties with Grace Hart as choreographer, but as the work’s overall director. As if that weren’t enough duties with which to be vexed, Fouchi additionally plays the role of Nancy, the gritty woman of the streets who is charmed by the naivete and innate goodness of the title character. Among her magical moments on stage is the plaintive “As Long As He Needs Me” in Act Two, a song that might best be described as the ultimate song on co-dependency.
In fact, both co-artistic directors get into the act literally and figuratively with this production as her partner, Gary Rucker, is tasked with the role of Fagin, the sleazy and shady figure who takes in children of the street in order to train them to be pickpockets and thieves.
As one might expect, both Fouchi and Rucker play their roles with the award-winning talents they have displayed in previous productions. Fouchi’s lusty and earthy portrayal serves her well in Act One’s “It’s a Fine Life” and the Act Two opener “Oom-Pah-Pah.” Rucker’s comedic touches enhance his interpretation of Fagin, who is more opportunist than villain, with him mugging the audience and only giving into the temptation to break the fourth wall once.
As the titular character, Arthur Victor Rusnak is simply a standout. A veteran at just 11 years of age, Rusnak has enjoyed more than ample experience as a stage performer since a five-year-old including previous Rivertown productions of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and last year’s Music Man Jr.
His charming and cherubic boy soprano voice has lots of sheen as he sings the plaintive “Where is Love?” in Act One and is a critical part of Act Two’s “Who Will Buy?” Rusnak’s previous work as an accomplished dancer comes in handy with this production as Oliver Twist is put through his paces being chased by various adults throughout the piece.
Also outstanding is Liam Gillen, who portrays a marvelous Artful Dodger. Whether leading the pack of Fagin’s misfit boys in giving shelter to Oliver (“Consider Yourself”) or endearing himself with Oliver to Nancy in “I’d Do Anything,” Gillen is a terrific talent. Like Rusnak, he is another byproduct of training in previous Rivertown shows including both The Music Man and The Music Man Jr., the latter in which he starred as Harold Hill.
In the role of Bill Sykes, the true villain of the Dickensian tale, Sean Richmond has his first outing in a Rivertown Theaters production and his casting as the dark and brooding figure is masterful. Richmond’s massive frame fills the stage and his intimidating manner is frightening. His one solo number is “My Name,” a song that isn’t as much sung as it is imposed on the audience. His demeanor indicates to cast and audience alike that he is capable of doing anything and probably already has.
Given his upbringing under the tutelage of Fagin, Richmond also carries with him the implication that the Artful Dodger, Oliver and all of the other boys could end up like him, a bitter and ruthless criminal.
Another role Fouchi can treasure in this production is as a mom and to be able to play on stage opposite her daughter Savannah, who portrays the lone girl in Fagin’s crew, Bet. In the original Dickens story, Bet was a prostitute, but her role is given an antiseptic rinse in order to keep the show family friendly. Nevertheless, the two Fouchis have several moments to share on stage, but none quite as special as “Oom-Pah-Pah,” where they actually get to sing and dance together. The younger Fouchi more than holds her own with her other younger cast mates as well as with several of the adult performers and is establishing herself as a very capable and talented performer.
Lionel Bart’s music and lyrics have stood the test of time since they were first heard on West End and Broadway stages in the early 1960s. The sad fact is that with requirements being what they are for this massive undertaking only a handful of theaters opt to perform this wonderful musical treasure. While the music is not live, it is lively and the performances are carried aloft and greatly enhanced by the music direction from Karl Harrod.
Among the adults who provide support is Alan Payne, who formerly worked at Rivertown as mostly a music director, but who has in recent years established himself as a reputable actor. Payne goes through at least six different changes in the piece aided with costumes, wigs and makeup, which allow him to play the role of mortician Mr. Sowerberry, a British Bobby and several others.
Laurie Reinagel, who plays Mrs. Sowerberry, likewise, enjoys several changes throughout the work.
Also of note are Patrick Hunter and Eris Walsh, who portray the poorhouse beadle, Mr. Bumble, and the Widow Corney, respectively. Hunter’s expressive voice is heard at its best in Act One’s “Boy for Sale,”
Typically requiring massive scene changes from the opening orphanage scene to Fagin’s hidden lair in the backstreets of London to a city marketplace to the 11th hour scene at the bridge, the need for a talented and intuitive set designer has never been more needed at Rivertown. Responding to their clarion call is none other than Bill Walker, the award-winning set designer, who created what might be the best set designs envisioned for a Rivertown production.
Even the well-appointed home of Oliver’s would-be victim and eventual champion, Mr. Brownlow (Stephen Ladow), is a masterful design that is wheeled out and opened wide to the audience, so well-constructed that it provides a second story for Oliver and others to stand atop before descending the stairway to the ground level.
Scenic artist Shelbie Mac obviously had her hands into this project as well. The dirty and dark streets of London were never better represented than with this production.
Lighting design by Stephen Thurber and costumes by Kaleb Babb are outstanding and Laurin Hart is to be commended for excellent work with wigs and makeup.
With outstanding dancing and singing by the largest cast on a Rivertown stage, bigger does mean better and congratulations to the entire artistic team for a job well done.
Oliver! , directed by Kelly Fouchi, continues at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner, LA. from now thorough January 26. The Friday, January 17 show is sold out. Additional performances have been added to the run on Sunday, January 19 at 7:00 p.m. and on Thursday, January 23 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for ticket information or call 504-461-9475.