The Muse Machine’s incredibly entertaining, excellently cohesive production of Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical “Oliver!,” the arts education organization’s 31st annual student musical, touches the heart and radiates with joy at the Victoria Theatre.
Based on Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel “Oliver Twist,” “Oliver!” totally charms as performed by over 100 students from across the Miami Valley who smoothly navigate the comedic highs and dramatic tension within this breezy, occasionally dark tale of Victorian England ethics and hypocrisy. The production –co-directed with marvelous synergy by choreographer Lula Elzy, producer Douglas Merk, and Wright State University musical theater professor Joe Deer –is inspired by Cameron Mackintosh’s reconceived 1994 London revival (for instance, the show briefly opens ominously with Oliver’s backstory instead of launching directly into “Food, Glorious Food”), but retains the requisite elements of character and community that keep the story familiar and inviting.
Joey Schairbaum, in an endearing musical theater debut, conveys a quiet, gentle humility as the titular workhouse orphan thrown out of the only home he’s ever known to be sold to an undertaker and ultimately seek refuge and love with the lower and upper class. Oliver Twist is a very demanding role for a young actor, and Schairbaum tackles his duties with observant, understated commitment. Rollie Fisk, an easygoing, crowd-pleasing Fagin, fully embraces his juicy role as a cunning father figure and mediator with firm authority and humorous flamboyance. Fisk’s terrific, believably perplexed version of “Reviewing the Situation” clearly dissects the various scenarios Fagin considers as he mulls over his uncertain future. Brianna Russ, vocally dynamic and appealingly earthy as the friendly, abused Nancy, commands the stage with fierce vivacity. Her superbly lyric-driven renditions of “It’s a Fine Life,” “Oom-Pah-Pah,” and “As Long As He Needs Me” are signature moments that take this presentation to professional heights.
Elsewhere, Sean Cheatwood (Mr. Bumble) and Christine Fiala (Widow Corney) are a hilariously compatible duo, Mitchell Rawlins (a delightfully creepy Mr. Sowerberry), Callia Tellez (Mrs. Sowerberry), and Cecily Dowd (Charlotte Sowerberry) rule their roost with cruel glee, Leo Deer (Noah Claypole) intimidates to the hilt with impressive dialect, Isaac Bement (Artful Dodger) is a sunny, animated encourager, Tyler Hanson (Bill Sikes) strikes fear with imposing heft (although “My Name” is unfortunately absent), William Peters (Mr. Brownlow) is fittingly amiable and caring, Joel Daniel (Charley Bates) lends fine support among the pickpocket ensemble, and there are particularly lovely vocals from Anna Hlinomaz (Bet), Anna Knippling (Mrs. Bedwin), and the uncredited street vendors/quartet bringing beauty to “Who Will Buy?,” one of many energetic numbers Elzy flavors with personality and originality.
Dennis Hassan’s expertly detailed set, attractive period costumes from the team of Lyn Baudendistel, Robin Brown, Patty Peters, Toni Donato Shade, and Alisa Vukasinovich, first-rate lighting and sound by John Rensel and David Sherman respectively, the vocal music direction of Carol Chatfield, and orchestral musical director Claude Thomas’ splendid orchestra are additional pluses.
Consider yourself informed that the Muse Machine has created a hit.
“Oliver!” continues through Jan. 18 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26-$60. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com