Oliver! at the National Arts Centre

Cast of Oliver! photo by Andree Lanthier

Friday, December 9, I set off to the National Arts Centre (NAC) to check out the opening night of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Ticket sales have  been doing very well and, I’m told, many performances have already sold out in advance.  This kid friendly musical adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist was certainly a good choice from a marketing perspective and audiences are  buying tickets based on the title alone.

In one key way I’m sure many will be disappointed. This version of Oliver! has cast an adult (Thomas Olajide) in the title role of Oliver Twist.  Unfortunately, much of the pathos of this particular story comes from the fact that the audience is meant to sympathize with a tiny child left alone in a harsh, well Dickensian, world.  A tall adult actor simply cannot evoke this kind of sympathy the way a child actor can. More importantly, the vocal parts are clearly well out of Olajide’s vocal range. On opening night he was quite often off-key.

While Olajide’s lack of singing ability stood out, there were others in the cast who clearly were not professionally trained singers either. This is clearly problematic for a professional musical production.

That being said, there were many moments that worked in this version and some fine performances as well.  Jennifer Waiser does a nice job as the “Artful Dodger.” Julie Tamiko Manning (Nancy) has a particularly strong voice. In fact, her microphone failed on opening night and yet her voice rang true. I also enjoyed Joey Tremblay as “Fagin” and Kris Joseph as “Mr. Sowerberry.”

If you can get past a few uneven vocal performances and the unfortunate casting of the title role, there is much to like in the NAC’s version. I’m sure that many will be reasonably entertained, but I can’t help but feel an opportunity has been lost for the NAC and professional theatre in Ottawa in general. Large audiences are being attracted to this show;however, with a mediocre product on stage will they go on to see more theatre in Ottawa?

For show dates and ticket prices click here

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