Compass Rose Studio Theater’s Oliver!

I was choked up from the moment the somber workhouse orphans marched onstage

Dan Siefring as Fagin and Sarah Grace Clifton as Oliver. <<photo by Stan Barouh>>

Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist has seen a lot of action in 50 years: 10 Tony nominations and five Oscars, including 1969’s Best Picture. It’s the tale of an innocent orphan among a den of thieves in Victorian London, a story I’ve seen and performed countless times. Yet Compass Rose Studio Theater’s production is in some ways the most memorable, the most heart-wrenching.
    I was choked up from the moment the somber workhouse orphans marched onstage for their daily gruel. In a place so creepy you can almost hear the rats scurrying in the dark, they sing and dance about Food, Glorious Food in the sweetest voices imaginable, with perfect British accents. Yet Mr. Bumble (Thomas ‘Toby’ Hessenauer) is deaf to Oliver’s (Sarah Grace Clifton) lisping, “Please, sir, could I have some more?” He’s too busy flirting with Mrs. Bedwin (Michelle Hill) in the best performance I have ever seen of the often forgettable I Shall Scream.
    Thus begins Oliver’s journey into the wide world — with Bumble’s haunting cry of Boy for Sale. A brief stint as a professional mourner for the shrewd Mrs. Sowerberry (Hannah Scholl) prompts him to ask Where Is Love? He runs away and meets the Artful Dodger (showman Corey Buller), who indoctrinates him into a home for wayward boys in Consider Yourself (at Home) where he meets three masters of his destiny, played by three outstanding professionals.
    Fagin (Daniel Siefring), the miser who trains children to steal in exchange for room and board, is spell-binding whether in monologue, dialogue or ensemble, showboating for his orphans in such blockbusters as the Vaudevillian Pick a Pocket or Two, Be Back Soon and Reviewing the Situation. You will love watching this oily menace switch on a sixpence from fiend to friend and back again.
    Nancy (Molly Densmore), the warm-hearted wench ultimately responsible for saving Oliver’s life, is lusty and loveable in It’s a Fine Life, I’d Do Anything and As Long As He Needs Me. Bill Sykes (Andre Softeland), her abusive boyfriend, will make your hair stand on end in his musical calling card, My Name.
    Oliver’s fortunes turn in Act II when he is arrested on his first day “on the job” and then taken in by his intended victim, Mr. Brownlow (Danny Brooks), a sympathetic gentleman. There he finds love and joy.
    This show would be perfect if it ended there. But Dickens wrote more, of course, and this production loses its energy after that.
    To accommodate a tiny space, Compass Rose pared down cast and staging to bare bones. Thrift works with phenomenal effect for the most part, but the ending is so skeletal that it lacks drama despite kidnapping, murders, and vanquished evil. It is as if the play dies with Nancy. Apparently forgotten is the ending of the show’s headlining events with the requisite gawkers, mourners and hangers-on that such spectacles attract.
    On a lesser note, two distracting details can and should be corrected. The accompanist is so conspicuously lit through a window she appears to be part of the action. And Sykes’ costume is so out-of-step with the rest of the cast he looks like a skinhead flasher.
     Reviewing the situation, I found that this show’s tears and laughter far outweigh its yawns. I recommend it to all who love children and great musical theater.

Director: Lucinda Merry-Browne. Musical director: Anita O’Connor. Choreographer: Molly Densmore. Costumer: Julie Bays and Meaghan O’Beirne. Lights: Paul G. Webster II. Tech: Patrick Horn. Set: Thanh Lam and Horn. Also in the cast: Natalya Jimenez, Aubrey Heyl, Donovan Heyl, Stephen Scholl and Tad Clifton as orphans and thieves, and the lovely Sarah Wade as Bet.

Playing thru June 3 at 8pm ThF; 2pm and 8pm Sa; 2pm Su at Compass Rose Studio Theater, Eastport Shopping Center, 1011 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis. $30 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-980-6662; ­www.compassrosetheater.org.