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Good fun when the screeching's done

Get past the over-the-top start to Oliver! and there's a lot to enjoy in the Show Palace Dinner Theatre production.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2003

The exuberant production of the musical Oliver! at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre has a lot going for it: appealing characters, good voices (especially Susan Haldeman as Nancy), a near showstopping Consider Yourself, great sets and colorful costumes.

Still, the first boisterous numbers are so over the top that they nearly numb the eardrums to the good stuff that comes later.

Composer-writer Lionel Bart based his musical on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, the story of a young runaway orphan in Victorian England. .

Bart keeps the tale from being a downer with wonderful songs - It's a Fine Life, the comical Pick a Pocket or Two - and an appealing title character, played by a sweet wisp of a lad, Steven Willsey.

Bart also inserts comic characters, such the beastly pair who run the orphanage where Oliver stays, Mr. Bumble (William Mulligan) and Widow Corney (Sara Delbeato), and the scurrilous funeral home operators, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Bobb James and Becca McCoy), who buy Oliver from Bumble to use as a mourner for hire.

Their shenanigans offset the violent actions of the villain, Bill Sikes (Erik Michelsen) and the doings of the nefarious Fagin (Jerry Gulledge), the slyly practical leader of a gang of boy thieves.

Director Michael Ursua's production gets off to a jangling start with noisy bowl-banging in Food, Glorious Food, too much stage business during I Shall Scream (Widow Corney needs to be subtly, hypocritically coy) and a screeching buildup to That's Your Funeral. How about some nuance?

Things settle down pleasantly after that, as Oliver sings a plaintive Where Is Love, followed by one of choreographer Jillian Johnson's properly lively dance numbers and the entrance of the cheerfully wicked Fagin.

Crisper staging of some key dialogue would make clear that Oliver is not guilty of stealing at the end of Act One and deserves to be sheltered by Mr. Brownlow. As it is, the audience might be left wondering why the victim would take in the perpetrator. And some wig and makeup changes would better disguise the actors playing two or more supporting roles.

These flaws aside, Oliver! makes for a joyous evening of entertainment.

Oliver!, weekends through Aug. 17 at Show Palace Dinner Theatre, 16128 U.S. 19, Hudson. Dinner and show, $37.50; show only, $26.45; ages 12 and younger, $19.95 and $14.95, plus tax and tip. Call (727) 863-7949 or toll free 1-888-655-7469.

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