By Marcus Crowder
The Music Circus' new production of "Oliver!" has a rough, uneven charm about it, much like the story the musical tells.
Lionel Bart's truncated adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist" softens the edges on most every character, particularly Ron Wisniski's central Fagin, in telling the story of the foundling orphan boy Oliver.
Dickens' 1838 novel paints a considerably darker picture of Oliver's miserable world, though the musical suggests a bleak future for the boy who dares to ask for "more."
"Oliver!" opens in a workhouse for orphan boys with the signature number, "Food, Glorious Food," featuring members of the enthusiastic Music Circus Junior Company under the fine direction of Gail Dartez.
Here, Oliver (the sweet-voiced Christopher Bones) quickly learns an essential life lesson. He has no friends. While the throng of boys eagerly push him forward to ask for more of the nearly inedible gruel they exist on, they quickly mock his failure and resulting discipline.
From here, the production rocks into a succession of wonderfully performed, tuneful songs that either lack necessary connections to each other or the characters themselves. We see the pompous workhouse caretakers Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney (the beautifully full-voiced Roland Rusiner and Karen Culliver) engage in a bawdy seduction in "I Shall Scream." Oliver is then sold to Sowerberry Funeral Home in the jaunty "It's Your Funeral."
Composer and lyricist Bart has written strong, memorable songs throughout the score, but as we suddenly lurch into Oliver's haunting "Where Is Love?", the boy is hardly known to us. Escaping the funeral home, Oliver is taken in by the streetwise Artful Dodger (Matthew Gumley) and finally introduced to the dubious mentorship of Wisniski's subtly vulnerable Fagin.
Oliver learns how street living is made through "Pick a Pocket or Two" but also the gritty reality of their marginal existence in "It's a Fine Life."
Two of the second act's signature numbers work wonderfully on their own. Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as Nancy, the street gang's conscience, belts a powerfully emotive "As Long as He Needs Me."
Yet there's been no connection between Nancy and Aaron Serotsky's villainous Bill Stryker, so we hardly even know whom the song refers to. Fagin's clever "Reviewing the Situation" has a smart back and forth on the merits of "going straight," though one suspects Fagin can really only live one way.
Director and choreographer Richard Stafford works wonders with the large ensemble of child actors who dominate the stage early on. The more intricate elements of the story feel sketched in, even with the strong outsize performances that carry the show.
Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
3 1/2 stars
What: The Music Circus presents Lionel Bart's truncated adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist," which softens the edges on most every character, particularly Ron Wisniski's central Fagin, in telling the story of the foundling orphan boy Oliver.
Where: The Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: Continues 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 2 p.m. today and Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (last show)
Tickets: $42-$74; youth tickets for ages 4-17 start at $30
Time: Two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission
Information: Call (916) 557-1999, or go to www.tickets.com.