Oliver! is a sad story. The musical, based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, finds the titular orphan boy abandoned and raised in a stern Christian workhouse, where he’s served barely enough gruel to keep him alive. One day, he asks for more food and is promptly punished by being sold as an apprentice to an undertaker. He escapes, only to be picked up by a band of thieves. The moment he finds a scrap of luck and is taken in by a kindly and wealthy old man, he’s betrayed by a friend and is stolen back to the thieves’ hovel. And, as is the case is in most stories, things get much worse before they get better.But watching Oliver! , aside for a few key moments, isn’t sad. It’s heartwarming, and it’s sweet, and once the plot picks up and all the main actors are introduced, it’s pretty much fantastic. Such is the way of catchy songs and lovable characters—they obscure the grim and the grime.The Landmark Musicals production gets off to a cute but slow start. Dozens of children (about half of the show’s 46-member cast is comprised of preadolescents) open the curtain with a well-organized rendition of the familiar number “Food, Glorious Food.” A few sweet and sometimes funny songs follow, performed by adults with side roles. While most seem new to musical theater, they’re pleasant to watch. And then, slowly, the big guns start to reveal themselves. Craig Short, the adorable, redheaded 12-year-old who plays Oliver, delivers a lovely solo performance of “Where Is Love?” The kid’s got a great singing voice, and he does a fine job in the title role. Likewise, the Artful Dodger, the other child lead, is played by 10-year-old Grady Harrell. In his top hat and oversized, ratty dress coat, he’s just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen on a stage. Precocious and managing an excellent cockney accent, he’s perfect for the task at hand.And then there are the adult leads. Until Hal Simons—who portrays Fagin, the mostly innocuous leader of the gang of thieves—stepped on stage, Oliver! impressed me as a more elaborate version of your basic community theater, with the benefit of some talented kids. But Simons is charismatic and funny and moves like a pro. When Maryl McNally—who plays Nancy, the archetypal down-on-her-luck young woman with a heart of gold—enters the picture, everything changes. She’s a tremendous talent with a stunning voice and solid acting chops. Then, saving perhaps the best for last, Jeff Allen Pierce is introduced. Portraying the terrifying burglar Bill Sykes, Pierce is grisly and guttural and as powerful as a hurricane, sweeping across the stage with unwavering force. This triumvirate raises Oliver! out of community theater territory. I hope to see a lot more of them. The show isn’t perfect. On opening night, the microphones were out of whack, with some barely on and others so loud that every rustle and breath echoed throughout the theater. But that’s easy enough to fix. The performances on the part of side actors are mixed, and while the many dance numbers are well-choreographed, there were still a few kinks to be worked out that first night. But the costuming and set design are great, and the live orchestra adds texture to the show, making it feel like a bigger production. Oliver! is a mostly sweet and sometimes heartbreaking show featuring great local talent. Landmark Musicals has proven itself a great asset to Albuquerque, and I can’t wait to see what it pulls off next.
Oliver! 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 24 and 262 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 262 p.m. Sunday, March 27 Rodey Theatre at the UNM Center for the ArtsTickets: $18 to $22; $14 children’s admission on Thursday evening and Saturday matineeunmtickets.com