By Barry Reszel
It’s pretty gutsy to hinge a professional, holiday-season, big-house, musical theatre production on a bunch of kids.
But with extraordinary Director Nick Bowling and Choreographer Brenda Didier as leaders of this particular London workhouse, funeral parlor, thieves’ den and upper class town square, it’s abundantly clear Marriott Theatre’s current production of Oliver! doesn’t include an exclamation point for no reason.
Two unbelievably talented kids—tiny, adorable 8-year-old Kai Edgar as Oliver Twist (with Kayden Koshelev at some performances) and Patrick Scott McDermott as a terrific Artful Dodger (Nolan Maddox at some shows)—don’t steal the show as much as rightfully own it. This is an extraordinary duo who put smiles on the faces of each audience member, made even broader when either (or both) opens his mouth to sing. Edgar’s effortless delivery of the signature ballads, “Where is Love” and “Who Will Buy” are emotionally stunning. And not to be outdone, McDermott’s “Consider Yourself,” in a triumphant return to Marriott (Ragtime, Holiday Inn) after a stint at Drury Lane in Matilda, brings the house down.
But what might be Edgar’s and McDermott’s most important contribution to this Oliver! as young professionals is their transitioning introduction of Lucy Godinez as the story’s heroine Nancy. Done through the song, “I’ll Do Anything,” among the most endearing in Lionel Bart‘s stupendous songbook, these two young triple threats move the story into its action-packed, conflicted middle, guided by the show’s leading lady. It’s pivotal for a top-quality production of Oliver! to do this right, and it’s never been done more right than on this Lincolnshire stage.
Godinez, not yet two years removed from Northwestern University’s lofty theatre program, returns to Marriott after starring in an earlier-this-season production of Footloose. While chronology suggests she’s young for the part, sheer acting and vocal talents say otherwise. Her pouty “isn’t-he-the-cutest-thing?” look when encountering Oliver for the first time, her playfulness seen in “I’ll Do Anything,” her angst in “As Long As He Needs Me” and her belting bawdiness in “Oom-Pah-Pah” are seen, felt and appreciated. With this role, Godinez shows casting directors she’s ready for whatever comes her way; Stewart Talent is fortunate to be her rep.
Jaws are not dropped for Edgar, McDermott and Godinez alone. The lovely Zaire Paul-Emile as Bet is the perfect sidekick to Godinez’s Nancy. The recently minted NU grad makes her Marriott debut with this production, gloriously joining with Godinez front and center in showstoppers “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-Pah-Pah.” Her delightful presence makes this reviewer wish there was a Bet signature song in the show. No doubt audiences will be seeing more of Paul-Emile. So, too, Mathew R. Jones as Mr. Bumble and Bethany Thomas as the Widow Corney give signature portrayals.
Bart’s Oliver! holds an appropriate place in the hearts of America’s musical theatre patrons. The story, based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, was first brought to the stage in London’s West End in 1960 and has enjoyed modest-but-long-term success since. A history and synopsis of the musical may be found here.
The enormous, tremendously-talented Marriott cast of 40 includes numerous household names among regular patrons of Chicagoland stages. Just some of the magnificent ensemble who may often be seen as show leads and in featured roles include Tony Carter, Lexis Danca, Max DeTogne, Gilbert Domally, Kelly Felthous, Jason Grimm, Terry Hamilton, Jones, Mark David Kaplan, Liam Quealy, Cassie Slater, Elizabeth Telford and Thomas. Those who are not yet known will likely one day be; shout out to the team of boys portraying workhouse orphans and young pickpockets, and a double shout out to the production’s child wranglers.
The single conflicted feeling this reviewer has with this production is the rather bland portrayal of the story’s villains, Bill Sykes (played by Dan Waller) and Fagin (played by William Brown). Make no mistake, these are two fine actors, and Brown’s vocals in “Be Back Soon” and “Reviewing the Situation” are wonderfully professional. To understate the abusive, murdering Sykes and scheming, conniving Fagin for a family-focused holiday show is understandable. So read here that this is an all-ages-appropriate production. But choosing this approach for these two characters leaves a chunk of unfulfilled possibility back in the rehearsal room and brings a tad of disappointment to those who count Oliver! among their absolute favorites.
This single nit aside, Jeffery D. Kmiec’s ornate, minimalist (necessary for Marriott’s in-the-round staging) scenic design; Jesse Klug’s gorgeous lighting; Sally Dolembo‘s sumptuous costumes; and Patti Garwood‘s typically fabulous orchestra all meet or exceed expectations of patrons to one of Chicagoland’s premier regional playhouses.
Indeed, this is a production that more than earns its exclamation point. So buy a ticket…several more for the family…sit back…and consider yourselves at home in Lincolnshire this holiday season.
Marriott Theatre presents “Oliver!” through December 29 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here