Oliver! The Justice Theater Project’s Immensely Entertaining Multicultural Production of Oliver!Features an Impressive Cast and Crew. by MELANIE SIMMONS • JUNE 13, 2018

The Justice Theater Project’s mission is to connect audiences with theatrical productions that promote social awareness in order to educate, inspire, and entertain. JTP’s current production of Oliver!, the final show of their 2017-18 season, is a fitting one to end their seasonal theme of “Equity and Identity” on a high note. JTP’s Oliver! is immensely entertaining, and the cast and crew display an impressive amount of talent in bringing this Charles Dickens-based classic musical to life.

Enough cannot be said about the large cast of children and adults, deftly directed by Jerry Sipp and choreographed by Heather J. Strickland into a fine spectacle of song and dance. The talent of the children is truly inspiring, as they handle often complex dance moves and large musical numbers with great skill, easily equal to the seasoned adult performers.

The story follows Oliver Twist, an orphan boy in mid-19th century England, played with a satisfying blend of innocence and pluck by Andrew Farmer. His clear and earnest vocals combined with a natural awkwardness that made for an endearing Oliver that we wanted to root for.

Oliver grows up in an orphanage with only gruel for food, under the indifferent cruelty of workhouse caretakers Mr. Bumble (played by Taufiki Lee) and the Widow Corney (Ann Forsthoefel), whose strong vocals delivered well on musical numbers but got a bit shrill during spoken dialogue. Oliver makes the unfathomable mistake of asking for seconds at dinner one day, and is promptly sold off to undertakers Mrs. Sowerberry (Kathleen Jacob) and Mr. Sowerberry (an appropriately cadaverous Thom Haynes). There, Oliver endures more abuse, prompting him to run away to the dirty streets of London to seek his fortune.

Oliver is quickly recruited by a pick-pocketer named the Artful Dodger (played with great aplomb by Vincent Bland, Jr. ) to work for his overseer Fagin. Splendidly performed by director Jerry Sipp, Fagin is equal parts manipulative and vulnerable, an opportunist and alternative-moralist. He cons, inspires, houses, and misuses the boys in his care, all the while doing so with such charisma that the audience can’t help rooting for him as well.

Oliver also meets Nancy (played with powerful vocals by Leslie-Ann Wickens), the ill-fated lover of famed sociopathic brute Bill Sikes (Juan Isler), and a mysterious wealthy upperclassman Mr. Brownlow (played by the indefatigable Jim O’Brien), who may have clues to Oliver’s true identity.

The set (designed by Jeffrey Nugent, with props by Erin Folk) is impressive, covering the majority of the stage space with a wide downstage framed by an arching bridgeway that spans the performance area. This not only supplies an appropriately utilized literal separation between the upper and lower classes, but also creates a simplified fly system beneath the bridge area that allows for some very creative set changes.

A detailed backdrop transports the audience to a wintery Industrial Age England. Cast members move set pieces and, indeed, sections of the main set itself in order to create the orphanage, upper and lower areas of London, Fagin’s lair, Brownlow’s estate, and many other locations — all with with seamless creativity.

Darby Madewell designed the most ambitious lighting rig that this reviewer has seen to date in this JTP space, using color, special effects, and isolated lighting areas to highlight the drama and keep the flow of the show moving well. A small orchestra (led by music director Ronzel Bell) is also concealed beneath the bridge part of the set. (The live musicians contributed greatly to the musical numbers, but their volume — at times — drowned out some of the dialogue.

Indeed, the sound levels proved a bit challenging throughout the evening, with some moments lost to microphone levels that were either too high or too low. This is sure to smooth out during the run, however, under the capable stage management of Alyssa Petrone. The costuming by Brenda Hayes was exceptional, with every detail from the stuffed bellies of the wealthy to the tattered rags of Fagin adding greatly to the characters and the story.

Like the original novel Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy’s Progress, English playwright, composer, and lyricist Lionel Bart’s 1960 West End and 1963 Broadway musical doesn’t rest solely on its child protagonist’s woes, but uses his circumstances to take a broader look at society at large. The class gap here is stingingly apparent, as the wealthy “proper” citizens live a charmed life of privilege and relative comfort, while the ne’er-do-wells are imprisoned in a system of abuse, crime, and disadvantage. JTP has wisely expanded upon this to include highlighted themes of identity, acceptance, and morality.

The musical itself shines a light on these less pleasant themes, but it falls short of a truly satisfying conclusion, allowing the wicked to get their just dues while ignoring, perhaps, the reasons that led them into such a position in the first place, and opting for a Cinderella-like ending that is uplifting ,albeit somewhat unrealistic. Still, JTP is to be commended for continuing to push social awareness to the forefront of its production choices. It is, perhaps, the job of our own current generation to come up with the real solutions.

This musical is not entirely gauzy, dealing with such subject matters as toxic relationships, abuse, crime, and social inequality. But the tale does end on a high note that brought the audience to their feet at the rousing final number.

All in all, this is a wonderful revival of a solid classic. The moving score, unforgettable characters, and timely social commentary combine with a stellar multicultural cast, an inspired vision, and high production value to deliver a delightful evening of quality entertainment. The Justice Theater Project’s production of Oliver! runs through Sunday, June 24th.

News & Observer review of "Ragtime"


‘Ragtime’ helps Justice Theater Project fulfill its mission
— Roy C. Dicks, News & Observer

Correspondent June 19, 2013
 

Sometimes a theater’s status can change with just one production. The Justice Theater Project’s mission of calling attention to the marginalized and oppressed has often been more admirable in its intentions than in its end product. But its staging of “Ragtime” establishes a new level of excellence that will be the company’s benchmark from now on. 

 

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1998 Broadway musical is a sprawling epic about America at the turn of the 20th century when the worlds of the sheltered rich, African-Americans and European immigrants came into conflict.  With more than 40 cast members, a wide range of period costuming, numerous changes of scene and precise choreographic and choral requirements, “Ragtime” would tax the most professional of theaters.Thus it’s all the more remarkable that director Deb Royals stages the piece so satisfactorily within the limitations of a church recreation hall and the company’s minimal resources. The production’s commitment and polish more than make up for a few compromises and deficiencies.Four lead roles are double cast.

 

On Saturday, Allen Brown, as Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker, and Connie McCoy Rogers, as Sarah, the mother of his child, made warm, sympathetic characters, their several duets the highlights of the show. Representing the upper class, Jason Hassell’s Father was appropriately at sea over the changes in his world, while Mary Kathryn Walston’s Mother astutely demonstrated what happens when change is embraced. Coty Cockrell made immigrant Tateh a likable entrepreneur, determined to carve out a better life. Ian Finley brought moving obsession to Mother’s Younger Brother, finding purpose in fueling rebellion.

 

Among the script’s many historical figures, Alison Lawrence’s fierce Emma Goldman, Jade Arnold’s majestic Booker T. Washington and Morgan Parpan’s Kewpie-doll Evelyn Nesbit stood out.Lex von Blommestein’s massive unit set allowed easy scene changes, but the awkward steps and landings slowed crossings and exits. His lighting design too often left major characters in shadow. Music director Carolyn Colquitt had every cast member impressively prepared, but the piped-in, synthesized musical accompaniment frequently covered the un-miked voices. But aided by Deb Cox and David Serxner’s fine costuming and Carrie Santiago and Aya Wallace’s vibrant choreography, the joyful and poignant elements of “Ragtime” came vividly to life, fulfilling the company’s mission commendably.

 

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com