It's the right time for Media Theatre to produce

Oliver!

, the 1960 Lionel Bart musical based on Charles Dickens' novel

Oliver Twist

. This is a holiday season that's looking as glum as the faces of a crew of workhouse boys, as dreary as a gray English afternoon.

So it's perhaps not by accident director Jesse Cline decided to play up the musical's besmeared visage and play down its devil-may-care grin.

It would certainly be tough to find a more ruthless-looking set than Kelly Michelle Leight's. With steel staircases flanking a metal platform whose only concession to the era is the pair of lampposts atop the railings, it's more gallows than London Bridge. Leight's lighting design turns the curtains surrounding her set from massive ominous shrouds to, well, slightly less ominous shrouds.

So, with the visual tone set for a gritty evening, why does the rest of the production seem so flat? The actors are serviceable, particularly Elisa Matthews' den mother Nancy. Though she's lost and breathless during the rousing "Oom-Pah-Pah," she manages to soar during "As Long As He Needs Me" and adds some warmth to all that metal.

Bev Appleton's Fagin livens up "Pick a Pocket or Two," (as does Samuel Heifetz's klezmatic musical direction), while Sean Thompson's Bill Sykes is appropriately dark and menacing.

The issue here isn't with a deficit in acting talent; it's Cline's direction that needs a tune-up. Why bring Tovi Wayne all the way from the West Coast to play Oliver, only to leave him standing around waiting between his lines? After his kidnapping, Oliver sits dutifully in the background, expressionless, while everyone onstage dances and sings. Call me crazy, but you might think someone in his position would be at least a little bit agitated.

And when Oliver asks, "Please sir, may I have some more," rather than being the gasp-inducing sentence that sets the play's entire miserable chain of events in motion, it's a deflated afterthought, more setup than pathos-filled moment in its own right. The same follows for the Artful Dodger's (Will Porter) fateful meeting with Oliver, which is less scene than prop for "Consider Yourself."

This isn't a bad production of

Oliver!

, just a mediocre one; there have been plenty of those. But considering the show's bold design and Cline's insight that this is the "other" Dickens for this time of year, it would have been refreshing to see a gutsy production rather than one that considered itself part of the furniture.

Oliver!

Playing at: Media Theatre,

104 E. State St., Media.

Through Sunday, Jan. 4.

Tickets: $22 to $42.50. Information: 610-819-0100 or

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