While we're waiting for "Annie" to filter down to the dinner theaters, there's always Lionel Bart's "Oliver" to keep us in orphans and song. The 1960 musical is a plucky mixture of Dickens and music hall turns, although its virtues are not always apparent in the revival put together by the Harlequin Dinner Theatre for the holiday season.
"Oliver" at the Harlequin, in fact, is a rather bland offering, benignly acted for the most part. Director Michael A. Young is reluctant to explore the musical's darker side, and while there's no point rubbing spectators' noses in squalor and perversity, "Oliver" without a touch of squalor is "Cinderella" without a wicked stepmother. Young, however, seems to have aimed for cute and colorful, and as a result Oliver's eventual escape from the collective clutches of the London underworld is significantly less satisfying than it ought to be. Indeed in this production, Fagin's gang of child thieves seems nothing more than a particularly industrious Cub Scout pack, beavering away on a merit badge for pickpocketing.
As usual, the Harlequin transforms its relatively small stage with some inventive sets and handsome costumes. And the score, which includes such riches as "Where is Love," "It's a Fine Life," "Who Will Buy" and "I'd Do Anything," is given a robust playing by the seven-piece orchestra. But the lead performances are flagrantly cartoonish. Only Patricia Pearce, as Nancy, a beleaguered girl of the streets, suggests the passion and the sting of Dickens' world. Her rendition of "As Long as He Needs Me" is the peak of a production that otherwise inhabits the flat, dull plains.
OLIVER by Lionel Bart; directed by Michael A. Young; sets, James Fouchard; costumes, Rayanne Miller; lighting, Michael Meath; musical direction, Thomas N. Whiddon. With Spencer Harill, Patricia Pearce, Eric V. Sorg, Garth Kravits, Buddy Piccolino, Elizabeth Donohoe. At the Harlequin Dinner Theatre through Feb. 7.