One of the absolute delights of living in Northeast Ohio is the array of Summer Theater and nobody does it better than Porthouse Theatre, but after all, they have been doing it for forty-six years. The entire staff from the parking attendants, to the will call staff, to the ticket takers, to the ushers and of course the cast and crews of the shows are just really nice folks who love theater.
The current theater is located on the grounds of the Blossom Music Center and with a capacity of 500 or so. While some regional theaters make their mark with Avant Garde productions of “cutting edge” modern shows, Porthouse tends to go with the tried and true…good old fashioned musicals.
As I was out of town over the weekend, I was not able to catch the opening night of Porthouse Theatre’s newest offering, “Oliver!”. The Tuesday show opened to an enthusiastic capacity crowd and was well received by all…and why not? The temperature at show time was perfect…not too hot or cold. The show had all the pleasant elements. There are cute orphans, a corrupt orphanage director, a lovable rake who uses a gang of kids as part of his retirement plan, one really mean guy and a pretty (but fallen) girl who plays mother to the orphans.
While some would say that this production is “Dickens Light”, I say, so be it. The Original “Oliver Twist” was a dark and foreboding political tale of all that was wrong with England at the time. Thankfully for us, Lionel Bart (who wrote the music, lyrics and book for the staged musical production) did so with a very light hand. His is a message of hope and redemption. In the end, the good guy wins and the bad guy gets his, no grey areas here to ponder over.
Standouts in this production are Timothy Culver (Mr. Bumble) paired with Lissy Gulick (Widow Corney) who play extremely well off each other. Miriam Henkel-Moellmann as Nancy brings an incredible singing voice that fills the space with joy. Eric van Baars as Fagin sings, dances, works with the orphans and mugs the crowd much to everyone’s delight. Brian Keith Johnson as Bill Sykes has the most fantastic baritone singing voice that literally shakes the rafters.
Oliver (along with a gaggle of other youths) “Food, Glorious Food” is an orphan under the care of Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney who are courting “I Shall Scream”. When he asks for more gruel he is forced out of the orphanage “Oliver” and sold to the local undertaker “Boy for Sale” as a youth mourner “That’s Your Funeral”. After a dinner of dog scraps, the young lad dreams of what life could be “Where is Love”. When Noah (the undertaker’s young assistant) taunts Oliver he beats the older and larger boy and escapes to the streets of London.
There he meets the Artful Dodger “Consider Yourself” who introduces him to Fagin who runs a gang of orphans whose main employment is to pick the pockets of unsuspecting victims “Pick a Pocket or Two”. They are joined by Nancy (who was raised by Fagin as pickpocket) “It’s a Fine Life” and who now acts as a surrogate mother to the youngsters “I’d Do Anything”. Fagin sends the boys out to steal, pairing Oliver with the Artful Dodger “Be Back Soon”.
Act Two begins with Nancy and the rest of the pub customers singing “Oom-Pah-Pah as Bill Sykes enters “My Name” in time to terrorize and empty the room. After Bill leaves, Nancy tries to explain in song why she stays with Bill “As Long as He Needs Me”.
While on the street, Oliver is mistakenly grabbed by the police but the victim, Mr. Brownlow ends up taking him home from court where he and his housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin “Where is Love, reprise” notice a strong resemblance to Brownlow’s long missing daughter, Agnes.
After a check up from the family doctor, Oliver is cleared to go outside “Who Will Buy” on an errand to the book seller. As he steps outside he is kidnapped by Nancy and Bill and taken back to the thief’s lair where Nancy and Fagin try to protect the boy from a beating by Sykes. Fagin is having second thoughts on the entire process “Reviewing the Situation” but decides to still be a thief. Back at the workhouse, Mr. Bumble (now married unhappily to the widow Corney) has a visit from a dying pauper, Old Sally, who produces a locket she stole from Agnes Brownlow when Agnes died.
Thinking there may be a reward “Oliver, Reprise”; Mr. Bumble pays a visit to Mr. Brownlow only to be thrown out with the threat of losing his position at the orphanage. After Mr. Bumble’s departure, Nancy appears and promises to bring Oliver to him that night at London Bridge. Sykes catches Nancy at the bridge and kills her and takes the boy but is hunted down and shot dead as Oliver is rescued by Mr. Brownlow and returned to his rightful place as heir.
Special mention must also be made of the stage set, lighting and costuming as well as the sound. The stage has a spiral staircase on the left side running up to a catwalk which goes over to a pole on the right side. In the center is a revolving stage that each time it is turned has a different stage setting. There are platforms and steps that give depth. The lighting is bright and airy and everyone is miked giving a good sound to the ensemble numbers. The costuming is extraordinary with a lot of colors that give the orphan characters a spritely rag-tag appearance.
Prude Alert: While dealing with harsh subject matter (stealing, prostitution, murder, drinking) this production is done so brightly that you should find no problem with attending.
Beefs and Flubs: While the young members (orphans) start the show off with a bang, the adult ensemble members seemed reluctant to equal them all the way into the second act.
Shooting From The Lip (In My Opinion): Summer is a time for lightness…clothes, music, temperatures, food and theater. “Oliver!” is perfect entertainment for this time. Take a drive out to Cuyahoga Falls for an enjoyable evening of musical theater.
This musical rendition of the classic Dickens’ novel will be performed July 29, 30, 31 and August 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 at 8:00 p.m.; and August 3, 9, and 10 at 2:00 p.m.
The cast features Actors Equity Association members Brian Keith Johnson* as Bill Sykes, Patrick Kennedy* as Artful Dodger, Rohn Thomas*, Lucy Anders*, Mackenzie Duan*, and Kent State School of Theatre and Dance director Eric van Baars* as Fagin. Cameron Nelson stars as Oliver Twist. This show also features Kent State School of Music assistant professor Timothy Culver, Lissy Gulick, Kent State School of Music assistant professor Marla Berg, Christopher D. Tuck, Ethan Montoya, Miriam Henkel-Moellmann, Courtney Nelson, and Elliott Litherland.
The Boys’ Ensemble is comprised of Mary Grace Bentivegna, Anna Clawson, Samuel Culver, Spencer Desberg, Wesley Howell, Jack Kendrick, Margaret Mahaney, Ethan Montoya, Cameron Moss, Carly Nelson and Stanley Niekamp.
Porthouse Theatre’s 2014 Young Professional Company is comprised of Lucy Anders*, Jessica Nicole Benson, Mackenzie Duan* ’14 BFA, Grace Falasco ’14 BFA, Miriam Henkel-Moellmann ’11 BFA, Daniel Lindenberger ’10 BFA, Elliott Litherland, Darian Lunsford, Dylan Ratell ’14 BFA, Christopher D. Tuck, and Shelby Shepard.
*Member of the Actors’ Equity Association.
“Oliver!” is choreographed by Porthouse assistant artistic director MaryAnn Black and music directed by Kent State School of Theatre and Dance assistant professor Jonathan Swoboda. Lighting design is by Kent State School of Theatre and Dance alumnus T.C. Kouyeas and scenic design is by Kent State School of Theatre and Dance alumnus Nolan O’Dell. Costume design is by Sarah Russell MFA ‘09, sound design is by Brian Chismar MFA ‘13 and technical direction is by Ryan T. Patterson. Actors’ Equity production stage manager is Derric Nolte.
For tickets, call 330-672-3884, purchase online at www.porthousetheatre.com or in person at the Porthouse Box Office located in the Roe Green Center lobby of the Center for the Performing Arts at 1325 Theatre Drive, Kent, OH 44242. The box office is open Monday – Friday, 11am to 5 pm. The box office accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover, checks, and cash.
Note: Gold Center tickets refer to the best seats, senior pricing applies to individuals age 60+ and student pricing applies to those 18 and under or with valid college ID.
Single tickets, ranging from $28 - $37 for adults and seniors and $16 - $24 for students, are on sale now.
Special rates for groups of 20 or more are available, as are student rates.