This past Saturday, I made my first-ever trek to Eldridge's North Scott High School, to make my first-ever acquaintance with the Countryside Community Theatre, via Lionel Bart's Oliver!, the musical based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.
First impressions count for a lot, and my first impressions were all good ones. On the walls leading into the auditorium were at least a dozen sizable color photographs of previous CCT productions - among them The Music Man, A Chorus Line, and The Wizard of Oz - and the photos were enough to fill me with hope. The sets and costumes seemed lovingly detailed, and the smiles of the cast members appeared genuine; there were a lot of faces in those pictures - CCT, it was clear, assembles enormous casts for its productions - and I didn't see one that indicated someone not happy to be there. High spirits count for a lot, too.
Once inside the auditorium, anticipation for Oliver! built further. With artful smoke billowing throughout, the set, designed by Justin Charles Gebhardt, immediately evoked a Broadway version of Dickensian grime - it looked like a sensational playing area for actors - and while listening to the orchestra warm up, a peek at the program indicated that there'd be 27 musicians in the pit, an impressive number under any circumstances.
Adding to the positive energy was the giddy buzz emanating from the crowd; Oliver! is the first CCT production since last July's Cinderella - also the only one scheduled for 2006 - and it seemed that a bunch of my fellow audience members had been eagerly awaiting another. (They may also have been eager to see one of their friends or family members in the production, as Oliver! features 45 performers in its cast.)
The show started beautifully. And surprisingly. As the orchestra played the musical's opening strains and the lights came up, our first sight was of Jack Kloppenborg and Jack Sweeney standing at a center-stage cauldron, stirring gruel in preparation for Oliver!'s hungry orphans and their introductory number, "Food, Glorious Food."
Yet the actors' jerky movements had an unsettling creepiness, and their expressions were gaping and lifeless - as if the orphanage's Mr. Bumble had hired the recently lobotomized for this mindless chore - and when the kids (slowly, slowly) trudged in from both sides of the stage to receive their daily meal, the stage picture was thrillingly disturbing. The dramatic lighting (also by Gebhardt), suitably ratty costumes (coordinated by the show's director and choreographer, Christina Marie Myatt), and sinister air didn't suggest Oliver! so much as Sweeney Todd, and even though the children didn't seem very oppressed - the grins were a little out of character - the show was off to a really fine start.
My heart sank a little with the arrival of Mr. Bumble - John Wagner, by temperament, seemed too nice for the role - but he at least displayed a powerful singing voice, and the staging of the "Oliver" number, with the titular tyke (Andrew Patrick McPeters) being tossed around among the ensemble members, was satisfyingly mean. Granted, the performers seemed a little distracted, as if they were trying to remember their next lyric, but still ... .
My heart sank further with the next scene, and the excruciating pauses in the flirtation between Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney (Bonnie Spainhower).
It sank even further during the subsequent "Boy for Sale" number, which was directed so oddly - with uncomfortable breaks in the song whenever Bumble and Oliver loped from one designed spot to another - that my jaw dropped.
And as much as it pains me to say it, from then on, things just got worse.
The Act I signature number, "Consider Yourself," was a mess - an uncomfortable-looking actress was plopped downstage for no discernible reason while her fellow ensemble members wandered around aimlessly - and the action inside Fagin's lair took an eternity to accomplish. (At one point, Oliver took the time to shake every pickpocket's hand personally, and there were a lot of pickpockets.) Blessedly, the act ended after about an hour, but not before a thoroughly confusing capper; Oliver's foiled pickpocketing attempt was staged so that you'd only witness this dramatic highlight if you knew exactly where to look.
It would be depressing to critique Act II in this manner, so briefly, a couple of high points. Elise Johnson gives her Nancy some fire and appears to be the only Oliver! actor truly connecting with the material; the "Who Will Buy" number showcases a quintet of fine voices.
After that, I'm at a loss.
Yet most of the audience rose to give the production a standing ovation anyway.
As this was my introduction to the Countryside Community Theatre, I'm going to assume the best, hope that what I felt featured confounding direction, half-remembered choreography, and unfocused performances was just an aberration, and happily look forward to future CCT productions, when Oliver! will just be a photo on a wall.
For tickets, call (563) 285-6228.