BY SANDY STAGGS
There is nothing Iittle about Greenville Theatre, as the landmark company is now known, nor its current “smash” “Oliver!”– and I don’t throw around that term lightly.
With a gorgeous set by Suzanne McCalla, who is well-versed in Dickensian dramas, having staged “A Christmas Carol” countless seasons, and her magical hand at the wheel of this sweeping musical drama that, while physically exalts a tone of poverty and rags (Thomas Brooks’ priceless threads nonetheless) in the gutters of London, is delivered by this fine robust cast with fierceness and authenticity, with the panache and polish Greenville Theatre, by any name, is known for.
The pacing, the musicality, Kimberlee Ferreira’s age-appropriate and tight routines, Cory Granner’s London lighting, the trap doors. It all adds up to a grandiose, earth-rattlin’ affair.
Leading the pack of wayward orphans is young Shaw Shurley in the title role. He beams in the spotlight whether he is singing solo whilst lying on a coffin, impressing a squad of juveniles and hungry kids – and I must say, this is hands and feet down the BEST youth ensemble I have seen in years locally with heavily-choreographed sequences like “Food, Glorious Food” and “Oliver!” – or, standing up to some of the numerous malevolent adult figures in this classic coming-of-age story (all portrayed by the company’s scene-stealing resident actors), one can only root for the kid. Orphaned, sold into servitude, forced to pickpocket, poor Shaw endures and explores it all in stride, as a confident and professional young actor.
As he did in last season’s epic “Ragtime,” Shaw holds his own with these heavy hitters and most are so immersed in character, make-up and wigs, they are nearly unrecognizable. Evan Harris in dual roles gives rum a bad name as a drunken undertaker and brings on the charm as the kind benefactor Mr. Brownlow, who develops an affinity for our hero.
Carter Allen gives an award-worthy pitch-perfect ballsy performance as the aging, seedy and greedy leader of child thieves, the notorious Fagin. Allen is no caricature here, breaking down this role into its most human element, however undesirable that truth may be.
As Fagin’s sidekick the Artful Dodger, teenage pro Myles Moore probably delivers the finest male solo in the show with his audience favorite “”Consider Yourself.” With spryness in his step, lots of rubbing elbows, and a convincing air of sinisterly abandon, Moore is the epitome of the Artful Dodger.
Andrew Anderson and an especially playful Letreshia Lilly who has perfected the Cockney accent) provide much-needed comic relief as a flirting, naughty older couple, as do Greenville Theatre stalwarts Rick Connor, Jerry Witty, Ashleigh Stowe and Kristi Parker Byers in an indescribable cameo in a wheelchair, and a special shout out to some actors in supporting roles that make their mark in this production: Austin Smith as the crude apprentice undertaker, Camilla Escobar as Nancy’s underling Bet, Albrecht Cardell as Charley, Kyle Kerr as Barnaby, and as Captain, Miss Rennah St. Clair.
Finally, we come to Craig Smith who plays the lead villain Bill Sikes (“My Name”). Part Jack the Ripper, and part Mr. Hyde, Smith is indeed surly and despicable, And when you get booed by the audience at your bow, you know you’ve done your job well. Carry on, Craig!
Although some of the music tracks didn’t seem as crisp as shows I have seen in the past, the vocals in this adaptation by Lionel Bart, as always, are impeccable under the direction of Tim St. Clair, II. Every single lead is strong and every number is a winsome work of art.
But no one works harder vocally than Jamie Ann Walters as our lone heroine, Nancy, the sole woman who has shone Oliver any kindness. Walters brings conviction and astute morality to this part and lends beautiful technique and emotion to flawless stylings of the show’s ballad “As Long as He Needs Me” and spices up the proceedings in the Act Two showstopping opener “Oom-Pah-Pah.”
And lastly, there is actually something “little” about “Oliver!” and that’s in the guise of 7-year old Cohen Clark. This pint-sized kid is by far the smallest in the bunch, but neither I nor my seatmate could keep our eyes off this fellow, who knew his cues, marks and lyrics as well as the adults in the room. Way to go Cohen! I see leading roles in your future.
On another note, “Oliver!” is slightly graphic, though, as McCalla told me on opening night, this musical only covers the first 150 pages of the Dickens novel and actually leaves out some of the gory elements.
“Oliver” continues Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 17. There is also a 2 p.m. show on Saturday, March 9. All performances are at Greenville Theatre, 444 College St. in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 233-6238 or visit www.greenvilletheatre.org.