As the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha's presentation of "Oliver!" moved along, rich layers of 1850 London were created.
Based on the Dickens classic about the orphaned boy who ends up with a band of thieves, the show opened with fog in the air and curtains — rarely closed for productions — opened onto a substantial façade and the workhouse where the sweet, naïve Oliver has found himself. From the well-done costumes in neutral hues with splashes of color, to the fine, 10-piece orchestra, to marvelous set design that included two buildings raised up by several steps and use of the balconies and seating bowl, to attention to details, the show was truly professional.
With so many elements nicely taken care of it was up to the cast to deliver, and they did — with flying colors, down to convincing Cockney accents throughout the cast.
It's just another feather in the cap of Steve Decker, the show's director, whose cap is already full of feathers. Inspired by a recent study trip to London, Decker chose the show because he thought it demonstrated "British pluck."
Also on that trip was Ryan Cappleman, who plays Fagin in the UW-Waukesha presentation of "Oliver!" Cappleman showed off his considerable singing, dancing and acting skills in a one-man show he presented at UW-Waukesha last year. His "Reviewing the Situation" in this "Oliver!" is one of the most delicious scenes you'll ever see in theater. Cappleman has so many acting tools at his disposal and uses every one of them in this number. Tall and lean, Cappleman lurks around like Spiderman and then rises up to his full, considerable height to muse. Eyebrows arched, long fingers drumming, he fully engages the audience and times each line for maximum effect. Cappleman also served as the production's choreographer, producing some excellent routines from youngsters and adults, as well as joining in with his own slick moves.
Decker also found the perfect Oliver for the show, Jonathan LaMack. The youngster has the voice of an angel and has the audience wanting to take him home the minute he implores "More, please" in the opening number, "Food, Glorious Food."
There are bursts of fabulous theater here, wonderful, memorable performances to go along solid ensemble work. The show contains a whole laundry list of familiar tunes we've heard — perhaps as commercials — over the years such as "Where is Love?" "Consider Yourself," "It's a Fine Life," "I'd Do Anything," "Who Will Buy?" and "As Long as He Needs Me." There are no disappointments in the bunch.
Ryan Lamb and Amelia Scheit as Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, sleazy caretakers of the workhouse, are expressive and playful in "I Shall Scream," in which Bumble makes amorous advances toward the widow, which she claims to rebuff (but she ends up in his lap, anyway).
As The Artful Dodger, Madeleine Kuenn puts her own stamp on what is usually a male role. Kuenn's Dodger is most athletic, with quick, catlike moves at times, graceful balletic moves at others. In"Consider Yourself," Kuenn is sprightly and captivating as she welcomes Oliver to the family of young pickpockets.
As Nancy, Morgen Clarey handles a couple of the well-known numbers, "It's a Fine Life" and "As Long as He Needs Me," wringing lots of emotion out of the latter as she sings about her love for the evil Bill Sykes played by Joey Woolfork, who sings "My Name" with a growl in his voice.
Also fun to watch is Timothy Ecklor as Mr. Sowerberry, the funeral parlor owner who buys Oliver from the workhouse to work in his business. Ecklor gives his characters very unique personalities, like his Tobias Ragg in Lake Country Playhouse's"Sweeney Todd." He has a distinctive voice and physicality on stage.
The show was quickly paced with set pieces and revolving stage moving quietly creating no lapses in the action. Not to be forgotten are Candace Decker's creative costume design and the fine music led by Craig Hurst, pit orchestra director, and Nancy Van Brunt and Jennifer Van Brunt, music and vocal directors.
Perhaps the only blemish on the show we saw was the lack of amplification on the ensemble numbers, other than the featured soloists. The sound was very nice, but we could've used more of it.
If You go
Who: University of Wisconsin-Waukesha Lunt-Fontanne Theatre Ensemble
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2 and 3 and 2 p.m. Aug. 4
Where: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1500 University Drive, Waukesha