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Quintessence Theatre Group presents an uneven ‘Oliver!’ with a post-Brexit twist

Nearly six decades on, the piece still has its charms — above all, its score.

Jacob Entenman (center) and cast in "Oliver!" through Dec. 23 at the Quintessence Theatre Group.
Jacob Entenman (center) and cast in "Oliver!" through Dec. 23 at the Quintessence Theatre Group.Read moreShawn May

In his program notes, Quintessence Theatre Group's artistic director, Alex Burns, describes his vision of "a dystopian post-Brexit" Oliver! The idea is to transmute the musical's Victorian setting to an imagined near-future of an isolated Britain in the throes of economic collapse.

That would explain Christina Lorraine Bullard's costumes, a mix of the contemporary and the fanciful. Nancy (Hanna Gaffney), girlfriend to the ruffian Bill Sikes, wears a bustier, leather skirt, and fishnet stockings. The Widow Corney (the delightfully comic Eleni Delopoulos), who sets her cap for Mr. Bumble, gets a little black dress and pearls. A cheerfully androgynous Fagin (Wallace Acton) rocks a velvet jacket, a fur coat, and a massive gray wig.

As you'll recall, Lionel Bart's classic 1960 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is the tale of an orphan boy who endures tribulations in an English workhouse, a funeral home, and Fagin's den of pickpockets before finding his way to a happy ending. (Not everyone in the story fares so well.)

Nearly six decades on, the piece still has its charms – above all, its score, filled with snappy ensemble numbers ("Consider Yourself," "It's a Fine Life"), soul-baring solos ("Where Is Love?," "As Long as He Needs Me") and jaunty life advice ("You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two").

Unfortunately, Quintessence's production, with only a four-piece band (the Mudfog Four, including music director Tom Fosnocht) and a mix of Equity and non-Equity performers, doesn't do full justice to the music. As Burns noted before the show, the Mount Airy troupe graduated just recently to Equity status, and, with 22 cast members, this is its most ambitious undertaking to date – perhaps overly so. It's a heartfelt staging, but an uneven one.

At the core of the show is Oliver himself, played on opening night with real poise and assurance by 12-year-old Lyam David Kilker (who will alternate with Benjamin Snyder in the role). The curly haired Kilker is a charmer, but he lacks the powerhouse voice the role demands.

After an episodic start, the musical gains momentum when Oliver meets the Artful Dodger (a lively Jacob Entenman) and is drawn into Fagin's orbit. No one in the cast seems to be having a better time than Acton, whether luring his young acolytes into petty crime, debating his own options in "Reviewing the Situation," or simply running up and down the theater's aisles.

Brock D. Vickers, as the villainous Sikes, is truly scary. As his abused girlfriend, Gaffney manages to turn "As Long as He Needs Me" into a song of self-delusion – perhaps the only effective way to approach this self-abnegating ballad in our (presumably more enlightened) #MeToo era. Daniel Miller makes a big impression in the small role of the bully Noah Claypole.

Burns has staged Oliver! cleverly and compactly on Doug Greene's cruciform set, supplemented by long cafeteria-style tables at which cast members mingle with the audience. The band plays behind the action, against the backdrop of a brick wall with the inscription, "God is just." Kaki Burns' choreography makes engaging use of this small space, stirring up the requisite holiday joy to balance the musical's dark undertones.