Monthly Archives: October 2019

New DRACULA Sports Female Feline Fangs

Review: COUNTESS DRACULA

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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Yes, playwright Tony Wright has flipped his villain’s gender for his new Halloween confection, COUNTESS DRACULA, but the ripest of the fiend’s victims – Mina and Lucy – remain substantially as they were when Bram Stoker published his original novel in 1897. In fact, all of Wright’s players are now women, including the vampire queen’s most implacable enemies, Jane (neé John) Harker and the occultist Professor Van Helsing.

While a mutual attraction that dare not speak its name seems to be simmering between Mina and Jane, no such restraints apply to the Countess, exclusively ravenous for female flesh and blood. Even her obedient slave, Renfield, is a woman – a madwoman with more powers than my credulity could take as this Actor’s Gym melodrama unfolded at Spirit Square.

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For some occult reason, perhaps a reluctance to hire a set designer, Wright confines all of his early action to a dance studio, where Mina and Jane are ballet students taught by a newly-minted Carlotta. (Lucy is already undead, gnawing on innocent children out and around London – and out of our sight – when the sun goes down.) It’s rather elegant, then, to see a Dracula knockoff begin with three ballerinas decorously choreographed by Melissa McDaniel dancing to music played on a phonograph, even if Wright’s budget doesn’t allow for an Edison replica that Carlotta could crank up.

This studio set-up works well enough for Dracula’s customary parlor visits and even excuses Mina’s lack of furniture. But we’re deprived of the Countess’s nocturnal invasions of Mina’s bedroom, where she overcomes such puny obstacles as garlic, wolfbane, and perhaps a locked window appreciably above ground. Forced to become a boarder offstage, Mina is a bit tainted by the thrift of the playwright’s concept.

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Beyond that, Wright is further strained to engineer Renfield’s scenes at the same studio. Conceived by Stoker as Lucy’s suitor as well as a mental health specialist, Dr. Seward now operates the asylum that adjoins the ballet school – a business model that Seward herself recognizes is absurd. To take her share of the action at the studio, Renfield must repeatedly escape from her nearby cell, employing transformative and wall-clinging powers on loan from her mistress. Despite all the fuming and fretting of her keeper, Wilma, Renfield is always back in lockup before her next appearance.

You would think that Renfield might take advantage of her escapes to lose herself in a nearby meadow or wood, where she could hunt down all the flies and spiders she so desperately craves. What keeps her around, besides Dracula’s awesome power, is sheer contrivance.

Why Wright hamstrings himself with this fixed-set concept is beyond me, especially since the playwright-director is also a very capable lighting designer who could easily transport us to Renfield’s cell and Mina’s bedroom with additional lighting placements and cues. Deep into Act 2, when Dracula’s coffins come into play – the vampire’s homes away from his true Transylvania home – Wright will be forced to change scenes. He should surrender sooner.

Taking on these challenges instead of circumventing them would probably make COUNTESS DRACULA more fun to watch. With Harker and Van Helsing mostly in men’s clothing – and the Countess enrolling for ballet lessons! – fun and frivolity are definitely on our dance card. Tarantella, Smee!

Costume designer Davita Galloway has a merry old time dressing up Corliss Hayes as Van Helsing and Katy Schultz as Harker in dinner party attire – contrasting sharply with the drab togs she devises for Teresa Abernethy as Renfield. The inmate’s insane wildness gets accentuated by impossibly long sleeves designed to convert her top to a straightjacket. Flapping away like a cheap balloon-person outside a carwash, Abernethy pretty much steals the show every time she makes one of her weird, wild-eyed entrances, either from stage right or out of the orchestra.

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Only Elisha Bryant as the Countess truly compares with Abernethy’s dominance. She has the lean, slightly skeletal look that the best male Draculas have plus wild red Joker hair almost as flaming as Abernethy’s. She doesn’t stint on the Eastern European accent and, underscoring her catlike menace, we get to see Bryant in a body suit when she prowls her ballet lesson. Hayes at her best matches Bryant’s power and command as Van Helsing, but much of the time last Saturday night, she was reminding herself why she has so ably confined her stage appearances to eccentric cameos over the past decade, stumbling over many of her lines. We can only hope for more consistent performances this week.

Exiled to a dance studio as Dr. Seward, Lillie Oden staunchly sustains the illusion she belongs there all evening long, boiling over spontaneously each time Renfield makes one of her predictable escapes. Of the three ballerinas, only Candice Houser as Carlotta seems to have been chosen primarily for her dancing skills. Olivia DeAmicis as Mina and Katy Schultz as Harker make a wonderful couple, though you might be taken by surprise when you see how Wright treats them.

Schultz is notably starchy, self-effacing, and deferential as Jane, though she wears the pants and gently pushes for a more intimate relationship. As Mina, DeAmicis is as pure, chaste and unattainable as you would expect a storybook ballerina to be. Yet when she falls under Dracula’s spell, Mina emerges from her bedroom with an aggressiveness that clearly shocks Harker. It’s DeAmicis who now exudes catlike grace and menace in predatory pursuit of her would-be lover, and we’re not speaking of a kittycat, either. There are rough edges to Wright’s new COUNTESS DRACULA, but on occasion, his creation sprouts some deliciously sharp fangs.

Children’s Theatre Puts a Cherry on Top of a Joyous Peter Pan

Review: Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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It has been well over 100 years since Captain Hook first asked James M. Barrie’s signature protagonist, “Who and what art thou?” Hook has certainly evolved since then, shedding his antiquated diction, but so has “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” as the current Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of Peter Pan jubilantly reminds us. Peter no longer answers as Barrie prescribed, “I’m youth, I’m joy! I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg!” Ever since Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, Adolf Green, and Jule Styne got hold of him for their musical adaptation, Peter says, “I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!” Without any official conquest or treaty, Neverland became an American territory.

Yet it must be said that, directing the show at McColl Theatre in the ImaginOn complex, Jenny Male has turned back the clock in a couple of key respects. Like the Darling family of Londoners – Wendy, John, Michael, and their parents – Renee Welsh-Noel as Peter spoke with an unmistakable British accent. Better yet, she radiated more pure bird-broken-out-of-the-egg joy than anyone I’ve seen since Mary Martin introduced this musical ages ago. The voice is also very fine, with richer low notes than I’ve heard before from a lady Peter and only a negligible loss of power at the top. Welsh-Noel also boasts more youthful energy than Cathy Rigby, the last marquee name to tour Charlotte in the title role, with a dancer’s athleticism rather than a gymnast’s.

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Fresh new joy also radiates from Caleb Ryan Sigmon, who sashays across Neverland and his pirate ship in a silken, spangled, flaming-red greatcoat designed by Ryan Moller that skirts the borders of effeminacy without quite crossing over. Male and choreographer Mavis Scully supply Sigmon with abundant shtick to feast on, and his antics kept the kiddies in a hysterical uproar of laughter. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard more excited glee during an intermission, as if parents had discovered buried treasure in the comedy, the music, and the flying action. Sigmon excelled most notably in “Hook’s Waltz,” slightly eclipsing the éclat he and his crew had created in his previous “Tango” and “Tarantella.” After he concluded the “Waltz” once, I hoped Sigmon would get a second ending to croon. Hamming up “Mrs. Hook’s little baby boy,” he did.

Political correctness, however, has taken away Tiger Lily’s former Native American zest, short-changing Desirae Powell’s chances to shine. “Indians!” and “The Pow-Wow Polka” have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along with the “Ugg-a-Wugg” title and much of the Styne melody from what is now “True Brothers to the End.” A percussion orgy, maybe African- or Caribbean-inspired, and a splash of Scully choreography replaced the tom-tom tattoo. Hard to say what the main sore point was here, referring to Native Americans or the treaties we made with them. Either way, despite Moller’s evocative costuming, it was difficult for Powell to sustain any traction in her severely pruned role. I’m not sure it was even kosher for her to acknowledge that she was leading a tribe. Gender may also be off limits in our hypersensitive new world: Hook’s “Mysterious Lady” has disappeared, and the first greeting from Wendy to Peter is no longer “Boy.”

The Darling children, products of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte School of Theatre Training, were absolutely wonderful, perfect examples Male’s meticulous directing. Mary Kathryn Brown artlessly delivered the full range of Wendy – eldest sib, adventurous girl, fantasy mother and wife – with all the joy and frustration of dealing with Peter. Wearing the traditional top hat, Eli Fischer was suitably priggish as John, and Andrew Ahdieh dispatched some endearing business with a teddy bear as Michael. Of course, the boys wanted to go to Neverland – Wendy hardly needed to invite them – but of course they soon got homesick after a few adventures and asked to schlep back across the galaxy. Alison Snow-Rhinehardt presided over the sleepy opening action with a sweet Julie Andrews accent as Mrs. Darling, starting off the canonic “Tender Shepherd” lullaby with a warmth that justified her children’s affections. Snow-Rhinehardt shed her formal during her brood’s absence, transforming into one of the pirate crew, but Jeremy Shane Kinser as Mr. Darling moonlights more prominently, becoming Starkey, one of Hook’s chief henchmen.

Male’s inventive overlays are certainly open to question. She frames the action with a little girl, Wendy’s future daughter, off to the side of the stage, reading the story and ultimately stepping into it for the final scene. In the meanwhile, lights come up on her occasionally as she gets swept up in the action – it seems that she’s supplanting the role of an interpreter for the hearing impaired. And if you think the woman listed in the cast as Tinker Bell is a celesta virtuoso, guess again. After twinkling on walls, furniture, and foliage all through the story, she suddenly flies into Peter’s hideout in the corporeal form of Haley Vogel, drinking Hook’s poison to save dear Peter and dying a fairy’s death. The tableau, Tink cradled in Peter’s arms before we’re entreated to resurrect her with our clapping, is like a Pietà. Kids at the Saturday matinee were as amazed as I was – and responsive. And how about Lisa Schacher as Smee? She was so lovably servile towards Hook that I didn’t begrudge her tagging along behind the Lost Boys at the end.

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Sets by Robin Best weren’t the most eye-popping that I’ve seen at the McColl, a little humdrum in the framing London scenes but bursting with life in Neverland with a preternaturally large dragonfly painted onto the skein along with clusters of grapes larger than Hook himself. The deck of Hook’s ship was, in the same vein, a monstrously enlarged replica of the boat we first saw on John’s bed, made from a folded-up newspaper. Dreamy and odd. The idea of making Nanna, the Darlings’ dog, into a big floppy puppet was brilliant, but I’m sorry to report that Male and her design team bungled the Croc rather badly, giving us only a tail dangling over the side of that newspaper boat as the action crested. Evidently, nobody at ImaginOn has checked out the wondrous Charlotte Ballet production of Peter Pan and discovered just how hilarious a costumed Croc can be.

But it would be foolish to assert that Children’s Theatre didn’t know what they were doing in this spectacular season opener. Clocking in at 140 minutes, Peter Pan surely ranks among the longest shows ever staged at the McColl Theatre, its opening act longer than most of the shows the company produces. Maybe the cagiest – and subtly effective – thing Male does is in the careful placement of her intermission. Flouting the norm, she doesn’t bring down the curtain on a rousing climax. Instead, we adjourn at the moment when Peter and Tiger Lily shake hands after saving each other from the pirates. When the lights came up, everybody in the audience – children of all ages – knew that there was more to come and that it would be good. The flying by Peter, Wendy, her sibs, and the surprising Tink is delightful throughout, but the curtain call sends Peter out over the audience, an artful cherry on top.

Flouting History and Scholarship, Shakespeare in Love Fancifully Dramatizes How the Bard Became the Bard

Review: Central Piedmont Theater Production of Shakespeare in Love

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For centuries, theatergoers and scholars have mulled over the question of how William Shakespeare became the magisterial genius he was, how as a poet and playwright he came to know so much, write with such a honeyed tongue, and move so many so deeply. In 1998, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard tackled that question with Shakespeare in Love, taking a new approach and attitude. Discarding the usual methods of textual study and meticulous historical investigation, Norman and Stoppard wove a new fabric, some of it out of whole cloth and some of it stitched together from familiar scraps of information and familiar quotes.

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Two operative principles preside over their work, normalizing Shakespeare as a writer. You will certainly come away from playwright Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, currently at Halton Theater in a handsome Central Piedmont Theatre production, with the notion that the Bard of Avon wrote about what he personally experienced and that he was a magnificent and insatiable sponge, absorbing everything that was said to him and sublimating it into magnificent verse and poetry. In the words of Henry James, repeatedly intoned in graduate level writing programs across America, Shakespeare was “one upon whom nothing is lost.”

You can also choose to be outraged by the shambles Norman and Stoppard make of actual history, beginning with the notion that the story of Romeo and Juliet is a Shakespeare original. Even undergrad lit majors know better. But you’ll likely be won over by the fun-filled attitude of Norman and Stoppard as they put together a story with sufficient romance, theatre and court intrigue, comedy, and tragedy to inspire not only Romeo and Juliet but also armloads of Shakespearean treasure afterwards. With Stoppard on the team, a genuine theatre insider, there’s a theatre-making perspective that adds to the excitement of the multiple plots that keep us scrambling to follow the action. Under the direction of Tom Hollis, the energy and enthusiasm of this teeming yarn were quite contagious for its Saturday evening audience.

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Before Will meets Viola De Lesseps, who will inspire the playwright to change his frivolous “Romeo and Ethel” comedy into the tragedy we all know – and serve as model for the heroine of Twelfth Night – a hectic stew of rivalry, antagonism, and desperation is boiling around him. Assailed by writer’s block, Will is already past the time when he promised to finish new scripts for Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre and Richard Burbage’s Curtain Theatre. Henslowe’s need is particularly acute because he owes money to Fennyman, a shark who employs henchmen and torture to ratchet up his coercion. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary, is a friend here, helping Will toward shaping the plot of Romeo and feeding him lines for his most famous sonnet.

All of this desperation and streetfighting are a perfect backdrop for the luminescence of Viola. A beautiful noblewoman smitten by the theatre and Shakespeare’s verse, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent in order to audition for the role of Romeo, performing a speech from the Bard’s first hit, Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a sampling. (Audience members who don’t know that women were forbidden to act onstage during the Elizabethan Era will be deftly brought up to speed.) Until Viola shows up, Will hasn’t seen much to encourage him that he’ll be able to cast “Romeo and Ethel” if he ever finishes writing it. When Kent flees the audition after flubbing some kissing business, Will pursues, only to come face-to-face with Viola. So now it’s Will’s turn to be flustered.

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Once Viola is on the scene, romance enters to dispel Will’s writer’s block and the world of Shakespeare in Love widens to include nobility, government, and royalty. Lord Essex, aspiring to Viola’s hand and fortune, is Will’s chief romantic obstacle, having obtained daddy’s permission – and Queen Elizabeth herself will also need to approve. If Viola does achieve her ambition and appear publicly onstage, the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, stands in the wings, empowered to instantly stop the performance and shut down the theatre.

Jennifer O’Kelly’s set design, with its Globe Theater arches and balcony, emphatically reinforces the notion that the action we’re watching in Will’s life is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. Pre-recorded music composed by Paddy Cunneen, infused with the sounds of flutes and lutes, helps in the transitions from theaters and taverns to noble and palatial surroundings. With plenty of input from companies and theatre departments as far away as Greensboro, costume designer Emily McCurdy splendidly outfits a cast of 23 playing 60 different roles – though it might be pointed out that the Queen of England should have more than one dress. Choreography by Clay Daniels, when we reach the iconic Romeo ballroom scenes in real life and in rehearsal, meshes with the music simply and authentically.

Best of all, the key roles were aptly cast. Morgan Wakefield had an abundance of breathless energy and theatre enthusiasm that never seemed nerdy and – since she was the inspiration for Juliet as well as Viola – a total lack of vanity staining her beauty. While Wakefield’s energy largely fueled the pulsing effervescence of this performance, Jack Stanford was no less on point as Shakespeare. He walked a similar tightrope between pragmatic calculation and youthful impulse that Wakefield trod, never becoming too cerebral. As lines from Shakespeare’s future works showered him from all directions throughout the evening, I always sensed from Stanford that Will was absorbing rather than stealing them.

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The nobles all sounded very polished, beginning with Jonathan Stephens as the pushy, valorous and conceited Essex and Pat Heiss as the sternly regal Queen Elizabeth – with a broad vein of worldliness. Jim Greenwood as Tilney was exactly the kind of prig you would want to cram into a trapdoor, costumed puritanically to make it obvious that he inspired Malvolio in Twelfth Night; and Anne Lambert bustled about officiously enough as Viola’s Nurse to make it obvious that Juliet should have one, too.

Out in the London jungle where the Rose Theatre struggled for survival, inexperience only occasionally peeped out among the players. Jeff Powell infused Fennyman with menace, convincingly shifting his attitude once the moneylender became stagestruck, and while Larry Wu could be downright bizarre as the tortured Henslowe, his intensity was endearing. A little more confidence and individuality would help Blake Williams in his portrayal of Kit Marlowe, but there was abundant stage presence from Bryce Mac as Ned Allyn, the star actor who took on the role of Mercutio, and from Brian Holloway as the predatory, opportunistic Burbage.

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Chemistry between Stanford and Wakefield in the Will/Viola romance will sufficiently captivate groundlings new to the world of Shakespeare. But the more you’ve experienced of the Bard, the more you will be delighted by the quotes from Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Lear that also creep in. Where the intended allusions and echoes ended and where unintended parallels began was sometimes hard to discern. When Elizabeth told Viola that even she could not dissolve an ordained marriage, was this a foreshadowing of what Theseus had to tell Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? While Romeo and Juliet was virtually writing itself before my eyes, it was reassuring to recall that genuine monarchs can understand the limits of their power.

Dangerous and Delicious London – With a Twist

Review: Oliver! at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Ron Law will be retiring when his 15th season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte comes to an end next spring, but he sure isn’t retiring – or even receding into the background – right now. The spotlight will shine brightest on Law in December when he stars for the first time ever as Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual revival of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Road barn. Meanwhile he’s had other things besides bookkeeping on his mind for the past month or so, since the 92nd season at Theatre Charlotte is kicking off with a different Dickens, Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Law is the stage director.

Thanks to some impressively weathered scenic design by Josh Webb and a juicy mix of dignified and low-life costumes by Melody Branch, the current production looks vibrant and fetching before we even reach the title song, though purists will recoil at the sound of the prerecorded orchestra. Your first favorable impressions will be sustained by the fine set of adult principals that Law has gleaned from the rich Queen City talent trove that showed up for auditions. Yet the mean rigidity of Mr. Bumble, the terror of Bill Sikes, the acquisitive cunning of Fagin, and the conflicted kindness of Nancy would be largely wasted if they were directed at an Oliver who didn’t win us over.

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Atticus Ware passes his first key test as Oliver Twist simply by standing up after dinner has been served at the workhouse and having the cheek to say, “More, please!” We’ve actually seen an Oliver at Children’s Theatre long ago who looked the very antithesis of orphaned malnourishment, and it was hard to suppress a laugh. Easily two years younger than any Oliver to appear in a local production – except for Andrew Kenny in 2001 – Ware also passes muster when Bumble reassures the Sowerberrys, morticians he has sold Oliver to, that the lad will surely grow bigger.

There are prudential reasons past directors haven’t opted for an Oliver as young and small – and maybe considered cutting Bumble’s room-to-grow remark. Without a body mic, it’s hard for a middle-schooler to sing Oliver’s angelic “Where Is Love?” or his wonderstruck “Who Will Buy?” and make himself heard across an orchestra and an audience. Nicely miked-up, Ware holds up as beautifully as Andrew Griner did in Theatre Charlotte’s last Oliver! in 2007, and he adds palpable charm when he takes his turns in “I’ll Do Anything.”

Of course, the main reason why Oliver! is being offered in the metro Charlotte area for the sixth time this century is Bart’s amazing score. No fewer than a dozen of the songs have engraved themselves in my mind so that I can agreeably recall their main hooks without assistance. Familiarity can tempt directors and actors to deviate from established Oliver Twist expectations – or, in the practice of casting girls at the workhouse and in Fagin’s band of thieving urchins, widening our expectations.

Law has presented enough iterations of Christmas Carol to value and preserve the Dickensian spirit of Oliver while loosening casting requirements where the envelope has already been pushed. Johnny Hohenstein immediately stands out as a fierce and booming Mr. Bumble, while Geof Knight as Fagin and William Kirkwood as Sikes are among the best we’ve seen. Together they form an adult triumvirate who remind us that greed and corruption aren’t simply confined to the underworld.

Hohenstein is as titanic as a beleaguered husband as he is when he’s a tyrannical beadle, a definite asset. I find ample menace and intimidation in Sikes when Kirkwood delivers his growling “My Name,” and I like the sliminess that Knight brings to “You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” – and the grim calculation of his “Reviewing the Situation.” You couldn’t get me to dispute that any of these three gave the best auditions for their respective roles.

It’s just that I want to see a craven factor, a fear of Sikes’ violent volatility that would give an extra dimension to Fagin’s craftiness. From there, the chemistry between the two rogues can be further textured by their one-time mentor-apprentice relationship. Knight just doesn’t have the appearance of a cerebral weasel, which would make these layers relatively easy and self-evident. Here it needs work.

When it comes to Sikes’ abusive relationship with Nancy, Bart gives Kristin Graf Sakamoto all that she needs to get to its heart. Even if Nancy isn’t liberated, she’s spirited, best seen in Sakamoto’s interactions with the youngsters and in her lusty, boozy rendition of her “Oom-Pah-Pah” polka. Nancy faces some grim choices with Oliver, yet Sakamoto makes it clear that fidelity to Sikes is infused with fear – propped up by fear, you could say – when she repeats her signature “As Long as He Needs Me.”

So the Sikes-Nancy-Oliver drama and suspense develops beautifully from the first moments that we see Sakamoto. There’s already a glint of welcoming light when the Artful Dodger accosts Oliver after he has escaped Bumble and the Sowerberry mortuary. Bailey Wray ignites a “Consider Yourself” welcome as Dodger, assisted by Lisa Blanton’s choreography, that seems to engulf the whole city of London. Wray himself radiates a city-sized energy all by himself. Dodger’s precocious top hat is a couple of sizes too large, a plausible wardrobe choice, but I suspect that Law has elected to keep it that way in order to keep Wray’s hyperactive hands partially occupied.

Later there’s lively bustle in Fagin’s lair when the master puts his kids through their pickpocketing drill, and a new flowering of Blanton choreography when Oliver awakens at the home of his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow. the greatness of Britain beams at us like a sunshiney day, for Ware isn’t the only vocalist in “Who Will Buy” as it swirls with increasing anthemic force. Consonant with this cornucopia of wholesomeness, Rick Taylor is upright and trusting, a quiet affirmation that goodness and kindheartedness can rise above the miasma that swallows up Bill and Nancy.

Aside from the cloudy Sikes-Fagin chemistry, Law only loses focus at the end when Fagin and Dodger make their final exits – seemingly without any emphasis or attitude. Maybe bringing them downstage would help, but it’s a moment that deserves more fiddling with and agonizing over. Last impressions are as important as our first.

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It’s still quite sensible to hurry over to Queens Road, where the corruption and goodness of humanity are as exquisitely balanced as night and day. At its core, Oliver’s journey is a progression from secluded, deprived oppression to the centers of opportunity and civilization. Performances are almost universally fresh and decisive among over 40 onstage participants, and it’s hard to overpraise the work of musical director Ryan Deal in keeping his singers fresh and precise through a long rehearsal process.

Of course, the excitement of opening night added a jolt of energy to the performance, especially for the 13 actors – plus a dog – who were making their Theatre Charlotte debuts. If you’ve never experienced Oliver! before, you will likely feel a similar jolt of discovery.