Theater Review: Singing Their Way Out of Dickensian Horrors

Fagin's gang salutes their ringleader in NFCT's production of "Oliver!" | Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT
Fagin’s gang salutes their ringleader in NFCT’s production of “Oliver!” | Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT

As the royal wedding focused the world’s attention on the pomp of British monarchy rituals, the North Fork Community Theatre’s stage is filled this weekend with reminders of the brutal history of English class dynamics.

But take heart, this bitter pill is served with the sweetness of song.

Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT
Fagin’s Gang | Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT

NFCT’s production of “Oliver!,” the 1960 musical based on the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist,” caps off the company’s 60th Anniversary season with a bang, delivering one NFCT’s long-held strengths: a great ensemble musical, under the steady hand of first-time director Kelsey Cheslock, a frequent onstage presence at NFCT.

“Oliver!” is a big production — with a cast of 25 named characters, a dozen pickpocket gang members and workhouse boys and a swirl of adult ensemble members, pushing the limits of this small theater’s limited on-stage and offstage space.

But it’s also a type of production at which NFCT volunteers excel, perhaps because the tight quarters help instill a sense of family camaraderie in the cast.

The lead actors in this production bring great vocal chops to the stage.

Eleven-year-old Skylar Valderrama of Southold, who plays Oliver, has a gorgeously nuanced boy’s soprano, and every time he opens his mouth to sing, you know you’ll be in for a treat.

Oliver practices picking Fagin's pocket | Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT
Oliver practices picking Fagin’s pocket | Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT

Justin Stuart is perfectly cast as the smirky Cockney pickpocket The Artful Dodger, leading Fagin’s gang through a delightful set of classic song and dance numbers from “Consider Yourself” to “I’d Do Anything” to “Be Back Soon.”

Longtime NFCT leading man Michael Hipp takes on the role of scheming, lovable, miserable Fagin, the leader of the pickpocket gang. He takes to the part like a fish to water, sorrowfully reflecting on his wretched life, with a sly smirk and a wry interpretation of his character.

NFCT newcomer Andrew Lenahan is chilling as the brutal pickpocket alumnus Bill Sykes, while Jenna Wolf plays Syke’s girlfriend, Nancy, with the conflicted nuance necessary of a battered woman. She also pulls out all the stops in her signature song, “As Long As He Needs Me.”

Matthew Orr and Michaal Lyn Schepps are delightful and grim as the surreal Sowberry undertaker family to whom Oliver is sold after he is banished when he begs for more food at the workhouse orphanage where his mother left him in her dying moments.

Mr. Bumble (Rick Peters) and Widow Corney (Kimet Speed) of the workhouse try to decide what to do with Oliver
Mr. Bumble (Rick Peters) and Widow Corney (Kimet Speed) of the workhouse try to decide what to do with Oliver.  |  Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT

Period details are an essential part of any production of “Oliver!,” and that starts with the costumes, designed for this production by Linda Gordon, with help from family members of the cast, who, according to the program, devoted great energy to shopping and sewing and finding the perfect outfits.

From the bland grays and creams of the workhouse children’s uniforms to the splashes of intense colored cloth that make Fagin, The Artful Dodger, workhouse overseer Mr. Bumble and the Sowberry family pop, to the corseted ladies and the dizzying color of handkerchiefs collected by Fagin’s pickpocket gang, the costumes are characters in this play.

It is difficult for an American cast, particularly one with such varied levels of experience, to grasp the nuances of British dialects, most of which we’ve only heard on British television, without an understanding of the geographic and class dynamics that underscore the way the British speak. These dialects prove a challenge for any American production of “Oliver!” and this one is no exception. But many members of this cast try. Mr. Hipp and Mr. Stuart’s accents have a particular ring of truth.

The fine-tuned 10-member pit orchestra, led by Karen Hochstedler, is a great complement to this production, with not a sour note, and a dynamic sensitivity that shows a mature understanding of the acoustic difficulties of this room.

The Artful Dodger leads the gang in song. | Katharine Schroeder photo for NFCT

Mike Hipp’s set design is austere and functional, with the grimness and griminess necessary for the time period, and keen awareness of the necessity of quickly creating space for Jenna Spates’ boisterous ensemble dance numbers. A half dozen large crates serve multiple purposes throughout the show, while the action spills over from behind the curtain to the two side stages maxed out to house Fagin’s brooding headquarters and the Brownlow house, where Oliver finds respite and the threads of his real family, and of real love.

The North Fork Community Theater is close to reaching its goal of undergoing a massive $1 million interior renovation, after purchasing the building from the neighboring First Presbyterian Church in 2012. This production highlights this tight company’s great use of their very limited existing space, and how much more they may be capable of upon completing these upgrades.

“Oliver!” runs through June 3, with showtimes on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available online at nfct.com or by calling the box office at 631.298.NFCT

Student rush tickets may also be available for $20 at the box office beginning 10 minutes before each performance.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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