Sundance Theatre is proud, and rightly so, of the fact that big-time actor Christopher Lloyd (“Taxi,” “Back to the Future”) is playing Fagin in its current production of “Oliver!” It’s a shame, then, that as of opening night, he was still stumbling over his lines — the only cast member to do so.
That’s just one example, though, of elements in this show that could have been great but instead are just so-so.
In keeping with Sundance’s reputation for doing cutting-edge, experimental productions (e.g., the ’90s updating of “Cinderella” a couple months ago), Lionel Bart’s only slightly subversive “Oliver!” has been tweaked as follows: We’re led to believe we’re watching a rehearsal of the show. The stage is just a raised platform with chairs around it, and the actors mill around onstage before the show starts, running lines and joking with each other. It’s very convincing, too, and it hints at some very funny, clever things that could be done once the show gets going. Will they be stopping and starting a lot? Will the actors suddenly break character and critique one another’s performances? Will the actors’ cell phones ring?
The answer is yes to all of the above — but they only happen occasionally. In fact, it’s a good 25 minutes into the show before anything really out of the ordinary happens. After that, the “this is just a rehearsal” references, while very funny when they do materialize, are few and far between.
The result is that we’re really just watching a show with no scenery or costumes. One is almost inclined to believe that the rehearsal motif was chosen to justify the theater’s not wanting to build sets.
The climax of the show becomes confusing, too, happening way too fast and without clearly defining what, exactly, is going on. A show shouldn’t rely on its scenery and wardrobe, but SOMETHING here would have helped us understand whether or not Bill Sikes gets killed (he does, but the staging here makes it vague), and why Fagin decides to go straight in the end.
Lloyd is as lovably disheveled as ever as Fagin, though his performance is not as worthy of being an audience-attractor as it’s billed to be. Susan J. Whitenight as Mrs. Corney, for example, is every bit as good, and young Dustin Harding as Oliver Twist is also impressive, with a sweet, cherubic voice.
The star of “Oliver!,” as far as I’m concerned, is the score. This show has fantastic songs, full of wonderful, funny rhymes and hummable melodies. To its credit, this production plays up each number to its fullest potential, thanks largely to musical director Ryan T. Murphy and a top-notch live orchestra.
The lack of sets and costumes could have been made up for with the innovative rehearsal idea, but that idea is not employed often enough. The result is a rather bland show that is not quite a standard, safe production of “Oliver!,” but not really original, either.
The best part of "Oliver!" was a really cheap joke, but one you couldn't help but laugh at. In the middle of a scene, Mrs. Corney's cell phone rings. She answers it, then says, "Oh, Chris (meaning Christopher Lloyd), it's for you." He takes the phone and says, "Hello? ... Marty!" A cheap, impossible reference to "Back to the Future," but man, did it delight the audience (me included).
I've mentioned "Mystery Science Theater 3000" a few times before, but I'll mention it here again. Mrs. Corney (played by Susan Whitenight) looks and sounds just like Mary Jo Pehl (aka Pearl Forrester) on that show. That's undoubtedly what made me like her so much here, as I am a huge fan of Ms. Pehl's to begin with.