Since being mean to children is frowned upon these days — we've come a long way since Charles Dickens' gallery of cruel Victorian authority figures who love to bait an orphan — any critic wishing to note that the kids in a show are extraordinarily talented risks being neither seen nor heard. Everyone is nice to kids. Even a lousy central performance by a diminutive performer — and believe me, I've suffered through plenty — gets soft-pedaled with encouraging grace notes. Readers get burned when they read such blather and then show up and find some off-key, snotty nosed, wholly irritating kiddo savaging a lead role. They don't fall for that again.
All of that preamble is designed to call attention to two salient facts about "Oliver!" which opened Thursday at the Drury Lane Theatre. No. 1: Like "Billy Elliot" and "Matilda," Lionel Bart's show from 1960 (yes, that long ago) is as totally dependent on youth as any major Broadway and West End musical ever written. No. 2: the children in Rachel Rockwell's production are simply fantastic. Really.
Brady Tutton, who plays the title role and looks a lot like Mark Lester looked in the 1968 movie, is a near-perfect "Oliver": a heartbreaking, handsome young fellow with an open soul and a beautiful voice. J. D. Rodriguez, who plays the Artful Dodger (Rodriguez was just on Broadway in "A Christmas Story"), actually treats this spunky character as the kid Dickens intended (a lot of directors cheat and put an adolescent in this role). Even Nancy's young sidekick Bet, a character whom you usually barely notice, is gorgeously sung by Sophie Thatcher, whose voice is quite astoundingly low and rich for a sixth-grader. At one point I looked down at my program and thought Heidi Kettenring's Nancy was the one singing. When my head popped back up, it was Thatcher whose mouth was open.
Where you have kids working like this, of course, you have a gifted director. And so it is with Rockwell, whose ensemble work in this show is detailed, organic and entirely engrossing (the superb musical direction is by Roberta Duchak). Better yet, this is a dark and truthful "Oliver," one of those rare takes unafraid to probe the darkness of Dickensian London despite the jaunty Bart score. With the help of set designer Kevin Depinet and Theresa Ham's shrewdly monotoned costumes (purloined pocket handkerchiefs aside), Rockwell has stuffed the entire production inside one of those Victorian railway arches that still dot London; the tight confines only bring out the potency of the work. John Reeger, his familiar persona hidden deep inside this gaunt, nervous Fagin, has very little sentimentality or humor. When John Gawlik's Bill Sikes takes a crack at Nancy, that woman who stays with a violent man, you believe he has really hit her. The undertakers called The Sowerberrys are the stuff of nightmares. So are Michael Linder's bumptious Mr. Bumble and Catherine Smitko's sharp-edged Widow Corney.
It's always interesting to see how different productions deal with Nancy's "As Long as He Needs Me," a ballad hated by many as the ultimate justification for victimhood. Kettenring, who is on fire here, clearly has decided her gal is an impatient fool who can't help herself and just goes with that all the way. It is a spectacular, intense interpretation, as are such lighter production numbers, richly detailed by Rockwell, as "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" and "I'd Do Anything." In the generally jocular "Oom Pah Pah," Kettenring unleashes a desperately intense take seemingly motivated by her gal's sense of horrors that are to follow.
In the last 10 minutes of this show, it must be said, things take a sudden, unexpected dive. Bill Sikes' requisite dog is AWOL, and the difficult scenes on London Bridge don't track: On Thursday it looked like Fagin was deliberately throwing all his treasures away, a tad out of character. It feels like Rockwell ran out of time. No wonder, given all she did to make this material truthful and all she achieved with these incredible kids.
When: Through June 2
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours,
Tickets: $35-$49 at 630-530-0111 or drurylane.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye