Mark Indelicato as the Artful Dodger, left, takes orphaned Oliver, played by Joseph Serafini, under his wing.
By Kate Luce Angell
It's ironic that "Oliver!," the musical that opened the Pittsburgh CLO season Tuesday, is widely considered a family friendly show, dealing as it does with thieves, prostitutes, murder and child abuse.
But audience members of all ages showed every sign of loving the CLO's version of the musical, which boils down Charles Dickens' 900-page novel to a brisk two hours in which the orphaned Oliver starves in the workhouse, gets taken in by a gang of pickpockets and ultimately finds a real home.
The 7-year-old who accompanied this reviewer to the show stayed riveted throughout, and even the adults stopped fidgeting -- a state of affairs that seemed more to do with the quality of the performances and music than the events of the 19th-century London underworld.
Where: Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center.
When: 1 and 8 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: start at $20.50-$70.50; half-price tickets available for children 3-14. 412-456-6666 or pittsburghclo.org.
The big production numbers such as "Food, Glorious Food" and "Oom-Pah-Pah" are smoothly executed and lovely to listen to -- "Who Will Buy," with its harmonies, is the standout of the evening -- but it's the individual performances that prove the real draw.
Dickens was the master of creating memorable characters on the page, and this production has assembled an impressive group of actors to give life to their quirks and passions.
Known to "Ugly Betty" television viewers as Betty's nephew, Justin Suarez, Philadelphia native Mark Indelicato lends some of that character's fashion consciousness to the role of the Artful Dodger.
Tricked out in shabby green velvet, Mark's teen Dodger struts London's back alleys as though he's trying out for the catwalk -- and it works. My first-grade companion proclaimed him her favorite part of the show.
Bethel Park sixth-grader Joseph Serafini certainly looks the part of the angelic Oliver, but this stage veteran -- he has seven CLO productions under his small belt -- also proves he has the singing and acting chops to match.
I've never heard a performer this young whose tone is as pure and clear, and director Richard Stafford has wisely advised him to give Oliver a personality, with a streak of rebellion and a joy in life that comes through in "Who Will Buy?" Joseph's heartbreaking "Where is Love?" was one of the night's high points.
John Treacy Egan and Robin Lounsbury give satisfying comic performances as the Beadle, Mr. Bumble, and his love interest, the Widow Corney, and Joe Jackson utterly steals the one scene he's in as Oliver's nemesis, the brutal apprentice Noah Claypoole.
Daniel Krell and Allison Cahill leave a sweet aftertaste in their roles as funeral parlor owners, the Sowerberrys, making "That's Your Funeral" a giddy celebration of the fun involved in the business of death.
Of special note is Kate Shindle, who plays the abused Nancy as a passionate woman who sticks with her abuser, Bill Sikes, more out of a misguided sense of mission than out of fear, and reveals the pathological depths of the song "As Long as He Needs Me."
Of all these watchable performances, though, Patrick Page's Fagin is the one that pushes this production from simply enjoyable to something out of the ordinary.
The character of Fagin isn't an easy one to take on, because the musical presents the pickpockets' ringleader as a 19th-century stereotype, the miserly Jew. The challenge for performers has been like the one presented by the role of Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" -- rendering human a character that is patently offensive to modern audiences.
Mr. Page's Fagin achieves this, making his character one the audience sympathizes with and roots for even as he doesn't shrink from making him unpleasant. He has performed the role of the Grinch on Broadway, so it's not surprising he succeeds so well in making Fagin the best reason to see "Oliver!"
As expected, music director Craig Barna and the CLO orchestra never miss a note, Mark Morton's movable scenery is lovely and apt, and the costumes -- especially Nancy's red dress and the Dodger's ragged finery -- are gorgeous.
The CLO's "Oliver!" delivers as an enjoyable family musical, but this production, like its young hero, rises above.