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In Lancaster, straight-ahead 'Oliver!' will have you humming along

Seldom have story and score diverged more dramatically than in Lionel Bart's "Oliver!"

Out of the Dickensian gloom conjured by designer David Dwyer on the stage of the Lancaster Opera House for this straight-ahead production directed by David Bondrow, the plaintive voices of a young cast eke out the first lines of "Food, Glorious Food." For a brief moment, the story and score converge in minor-key harmony.

But before we know it, these starving waifs are pirouetting with bowls of gruel in their hands and smiles on their faces, happily powered by their own fantasies of sausage and mustard, jelly and custard. You know, as orphans do.

Even the most perfectly executed version of "Oliver!" — and Bondrow's well-cast production approaches perfection in spots — is bound to give the uninitiated theatergoer emotional whiplash.

No production I have seen, including a clever Depression-era take by Chris Kelly in 2011, has solved the tonal problem inherent in Bart's brilliant but transitionless score. It trips from the Vaudevillian ridiculousness of "It's Your Funeral" to the aching beauty of "Where Is Love?" and back.

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This one doesn't solve it either, but you're sure to hum along. Approached as anything other than a disparate series of vignettes or set pieces, the musical is likely to disappoint. So the key is to take "Oliver!" as it comes, in disconnected bits and pieces more beautiful in isolation than in aggregate.

As such, Bondrow's production — completely free of 21st century influences  — delivers the goods. Any director able to wrangle this many young cast members into such charming renditions of "Consider Yourself" or "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" deserves some sort of sub-regional Tony Award. I'd award a handful to Bondrow and choreographer Kevin Leary (also a delightful Fagin in this production) for their effective staging of these tricky numbers.

As the performances go, standouts include Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell's Nancy ("As Long As He Needs Me"), Leary's compassionate Fagin, Kyle Baran's towering, glowering Bill Sikes and young Seth Phillyaw as the Artful Dodger. Joel Fesmire's performance in the title role is appealing, as are turns by Ian Michalski as Mr. Bumble and Rebecca J. Runge as the Widow Corney.

The production, with period-perfect costumes by Lise Hardy, a functional set by Dwyer and gloomy lighting by Ruth Strzelewizcz that needs to be tweaked when actors venture upstage, is fundamentally solid. Fran Landis' musical direction is on point, her orchestra in rhythmic sync and well-tuned.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to turn this dusty collection of wonderful melodies into something more than a nostalgia trip. That's all it ever strives to be in Bondrow's production, and on that account it succeeds as well as you might expect. That is to say: with pleasant melodies softly hummed on the way out of the theater, which quickly dissipate into the November air.

Theater Review

"Oliver!"

2.5 stars (out of four)

Continues through Nov. 18 in the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Tickets are $10 to $30. Call 683-1776 or visit lancopera.org.

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