MTL closes summer run with an energizing ‘Oliver!’

Mr. Bumble (Bo Cecil) takes Oliver (Connor Holloway) to London in “Boy for Sale.”: Photo by Kathy Reynolds

Mr. Bumble (Bo Cecil) takes Oliver (Connor Holloway) to London in “Boy for Sale.”: Photo by Kathy Reynolds

Starring Bo Cecil, Cindy Crenshaw Smith, Dewey Caddell, Kristy Calman, Margo Wooldridge, Ian Ellis, Matt Orme, Laura Obenauf, Ryan Metzger, Jill Plappert-Higginbotham, Connor Holloway and Sean Sullivan. Directed by John R. Leffert. Orchestra conducted by Craig Swatt. Presented by Music Theatre Louisville at the Iroquois Amphitheatre. Continues Sept. 12-16. For tickets, call 589-4060.

Many people were appalled in 1839 after reading “Oliver Twist,” the latest work from Charles Dickens, with its depictions of poverty and crime and even a character who was a prostitute. Those same people probably never imagined that more than 100 years later, the story would lend itself to a widely popular musical adaptation called “Oliver!” This enchanting but complex show, with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, ran 2,668 performances after opening in London’s West End theater district in 1960.

The story features Oliver, the idealized orphan who is mistreated by a range of odious characters, from Mr. Bumble, who oversees the workhouse where the audience first sees Oliver, to Bill Sykes, a burglar who runs a crime gang that depends on young boys to pickpocket city folk around town.

Music Theatre Louisville’s current production isn’t scheduled for such a long run; it closes Sunday. However, this rendition radiates with considerable charm, from the opening number where young boys masterfully march, dance and sing, to the dynamic rendition of “Food Glorious Food,” to “Where is Love?” the moving solo sung here by Connor Holloway, whose angelic voice is pure and delicate while conveying strength.

One of this production’s strongest attributes is a cast that includes several members with considerable vocal talents to match their acting abilities. Bo Cecil as Bumble and Cindy Crenshaw Smith as Widow Corney demonstrate extensive vocal control and great comic timing that complements their rapport in “I Shall Scream” and “Oliver.” Cecil is magnificent in how he takes complete control of his role, making Bumble both intimidating and fun to watch every time he takes the stage.

Laura Obenauf could steal anyone’s heart as Nancy, the tough-talking prostitute who is sentimental about the people in her life, even those who hurt her, particularly Bill. When she takes a maternal shine to Oliver, we feel her deep affection for the boy. This battered woman’s poignant rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me,” sung to convince herself of Bill’s love for her, could elicit pity in almost anyone. (If you’ve been lonely/Then you will know/When someone needs you/You love them so.) Obenauf’s portrayal most clearly reflects Dickens’ intent to illuminate and humanize social problems on an intimate level.

By contrast, these stellar performances reveal how difficult it can be to convey the depth of such complicated characters in a fast-paced musical setting. Most notable is Ryan Metzger. His hulking, dark physicality matches his vicious criminal role, but he fails to menace the audience. Sean Sullivan as Artful Dodger is often difficult to understand, singing and speaking, and he sometimes seems unsure of himself.

Director John R. Leffert gets credit for devising interesting staging for the large cast, but one evident shortcoming on opening night was slow pacing, which derived from several scene changes that kept the audience waiting too long in the dark, as well as awkward blocking during some musical numbers. I suspect the cast and crew have worked out these bugs in subsequent performances.

In the end, the production itself answers the question “Where is Love?” It lives within the energy and tender care the cast and crew bring to this touching story.