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Wednesday, June 10, 2009 06:04 pm

Oliver! overcomes slow start

Talented cast and crew get Muni season underway

Older orphans apprehend Oliver (Jimmy Riemer, center) in an early scene from Oliver!

Cast members from the organization’s three upcoming shows cheered wildly as Muni President Flynn Hanners mentioned them in his opening night remarks last Friday. As Hanners spoke, the audience sat before him with balloons and flowers tucked away in preparation for a post-show reception. It was a big crowd full of family and friends — and yet it took almost a full act for the cast to coax from them a response. Like spring training is practice for the umpires, opening night is practice for the audience.

It was also opening night for the actors, who struggled at first with pacing and nerves before finally settling in and delivering an all-around solid and engaging performance worthy of a more responsive crowd. The show starts out slow, with long scenes that leave actors just as orphaned as the title character — on stage with very little to do except stand in one corner and sing and act well.

We meet orphaned Oliver Twist (Jimmy Riemer) and his peers as they beg Mr. Bumble for Food, Glorious Food, and from the begging we can see that director Carly Shank has assembled a powerhouse of young performers. Tom Heintzelman is good and likeable as Bumble, and his scenes with Widow Corney (Amanda Ratz) are especially charming. One wonders, however, why Heintzelman’s Bumble was directed to be warm and jolly rather than cruel and heartless. He is, after all, singing lines like “He will rue the day somebody named him Oliver.”

Oliver does run away, however, not because Bumble is scary, but because the script tells him to. He makes his way to Mr. Sowerberry’s funeral parlor, and the instant he opens his mouth to sing Where is Love?, the previously stoic audience seems to utter a collective gasp. Riemer’s pure voice wafts effortlessly into the air and into the June nighttime. In an impressive display, the fifth grader (and Muni newcomer) captivates the audience in an instant.

And from there, the momentum picks up with the arrival of the delightfully energetic Jakob Groeteke as the cocky Artful Dodger. He and the wonderful chorus span the entire stage to perform Consider Yourself. The cast finally hits its stride, and the audience finally claps and laughs at all the right moments (hint: when a song is over or an actor makes a joke).

As the run-crew wheels Fagin’s kitchen on stage, where young Oliver learns the ins and outs of pick-pocketing, the full efforts of Shank’s colleagues are displayed. This kitchen set (and later, the London Bridge) compliment well-designed lights to create a dark, ominous 19th century London that almost becomes a central character of its own. Shank does a superb job of guiding the talents of set designer Todd Schumacher, scenic artist Mary Young, costume designer Michaeleen McDonald, props coordinator Sabrina Holmes, make-up and hair designer Annie Germann, and her lighting designer (Alan Smithee) into a cohesive and vibrant work of art.

Don Schneider, Jr., reprising his 1982 Muni role, gives Fagin the perfect blend of wit and sympathy, and the young cast plays off it well; they love being on stage with him and never falter despite considerable stage time.

Oliver! continues to improve on itself throughout the second act, helped along by John O’Connor’s strong portrayal of the evil Bill Sykes. Sykes is a difficult role, and O’Connor toes the line of melodrama perfectly without ever stepping across into caricature. The show’s chorus is at its best in the sweet and lamentful Who Will Buy?, another moment where Shank’s direction comes through and all moving pieces work in perfect synergy. This time, Christie Lazarides’ vocal direction and Mary E. Meyers’ music direction are the focal points.

There are other highlights of the show: Fagin’s Reviewing the Situation, Bumble and Widow Corney’s reprise of Oliver (featuring a good moment with her cat), and Phil Funkenbusch as the compassionate Mr. Brownlow.

The final scene is striking and impressive. There were minor technical mishaps here and there, but after some initial bumps in the road the skilled and charismatic cast performed beautifully. Oh, and the audience did, too. Oliver! received an opening night standing ovation.

Oliver! continues nightly at 8:30 through June 14. For tickets, call 793-MUNI.

After five years at Warner Brothers, Zach Baliva left to produce the feature film My Name is Jerry. Local theater credits include Muni’s Wizard of Oz, and Fiddler on the Roof, STC’s The Fantasticks, and ACTT’s Romeo and Juliet.

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