By Beki Pineda

OLIVER – Written by Lionel Bart; Directed by Shannan Steele. Produced by Candlelight Dinner Playhouse (4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown) through May 26. Tickets available at 970-744-3747 or coloradocandlelight.com.

Although Lionel Bart wrote eight musicals, OLIVER was his one and only sustained hit. But artistic and financial hit it was. I have to mention that Bart was also semi-responsible for the show dubbed in England as the “worst ever written” – a musical based on the Robin Hood legend called TWANG!  As I was living in England at the time of this debacle, I had to make a trip to London to see if it was as bad as all the critics said it was. It was. But Bart’s reputation as a songwriter was sealed by OLIVER and the stand alone rock songs and ballads he wrote for the leading singers in England during the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Oliver, a loose musical adaptation of Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST, lives on at Candlelight and theatres all over the world. The story of an orphan boy who leaves the orphanage to become an apprentice to an undertaker. He runs away from there only to be “adopted” by Fagin, a street criminal with a string of child pickpockets. He experiences his first sense of family at Fagin’s and makes new friends of another pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, and Nancy, the wife of one of the adult criminals. During his first thieving expedition, he gets caught by the coppers but rescued by his victim, Mr. Brownlow.  Not content to let one of his “boys” go, Fagin sends Nancy and Bill, her husband, out to bring him back. There are bad guys, funny guys, heroes, and dancing ladies all through the production. While it ends well for Oliver, not so much for some of the other characters. But in the meantime, the audience is treated to some of the sweetest, most rousing music ever heard on a Broadway stage. Songs include “Food Glorious Food” (Please, Sir, Can I have some more?), “Where is Love,” “Consider Yourself (part of the family),” “As Long As He Needs Me,” and “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and many more.

The troupe of actors for this production is bolstered by approximately eighteen young performers who alternate as a child’s ensemble of orphans. They bring such an energy and enthusiasm that even the experienced performers who do this acting thing all the time are rejuvenated and more lively. Eli Emming plays the title role with a sense of wonder and discovery as though it is happening new to him each time he performs. His partner in crime is Axel Manica as the Artful Dodger. Other supporting players in Oliver’s twisted tale are a booming George Lemmon as Mr. Bumble from the orphanage; Tim Howard as Noah who gets Oliver kicked out of the undertaker’s; Alisha Winter-Hayes as Mrs. Bedwin who befriends Oliver at Brownlow’s house and gets to sing the beautiful ballad “Where is Love;” and TJ Mullin himself as the kindly Mr. Brownlow. The understudy Harmony Livingston did a wondrous touching performance as Nancy while David Wygant is cruel and remorseless as the villain Bill Sykes.

But this evening belongs to Kent Suggs who is absolutely delightful as Fagin. As treacherous and selfish as he is,  you get the feeling that he really cares for “his boys.” He does his best to provide shelter and food for street urchins who would starve otherwise. He trains them in a skill, albeit an illegal one, shows them affection, and provides companionship. “Consider yourself one of the family.” His hunched over posture, his gloved and clenched hands, his straggly hair, he is the epitome of Fagin. This is a part Kent was born to play.

There were many things to enjoy from the technical team as well. Bob Hoppe’s choreography was original and authentic with steps and patterns simple enough for the kids to repeat and complicated enough for the more experienced dancers to have a good time. His use of the gruel bowls and spoons in the first number was especially creative and comic. Shannan Steele’s direction was imaginative, strong and utilized the entire set to create interesting stage pictures. The house band led by Phil Forman achieved a perfect balance between singer and accompaniment aided by sound designer Phillip Baugh and Board Operator Jacob Rogers. The lights designed by Alex Hanna found interesting ways to highlight the action and create a mood. Aaron Sheckler designed the set which created interesting spaces for the actors and dancers and solved all the problems of this complicated script. Joel Adam Chavez, always an excellent addition to a technical team, brought his A game to his task as Scenic Artist. Period appropriate clothing was provided by Kevin Wolfgang.

The kitchen excelled as well with a menu designed to complement a working class English meal. Both the fish ‘n’ chips and steak pie were delicious. Candlelight continues to pour forth imaginative and creative productions for the Front Range. Check out OLIVER and their newly announced 2020 season.

A WOW factor of 8.75!!