5-Star Theatricals’ final musical of the season, Oliver!, thrives on its age-varied and versatile cast, featuring some of the best young talent seen on stage alongside an award-worthy performance by regional theatre star Monika Peña whose turn as the high-spirited and sympathetic Nancy is worth the price of admission alone at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks, CA.
It’s not easy to pull off a show with so many characters and moving pieces, but director Kari Hayter, choreographer Christopher M. Albrecht, and music director Anthony Lucca have effectively corralled 5-Star’s large cast, emphasizing the strengths of each performer and ensuring that Charles Dickens’ original novel, Oliver Twist, and Lionel Bart’s stage adaptation (book, music, and lyrics) are appropriately paid homage to.
The premise of Oliver! — which mostly takes place in the underbelly of London — is one that will continue to fascinate children and adults alike. How can we not be drawn to the innocent and orphaned protagonist who is unceremoniously sold for three measly pounds, only to run away, join up with a ragtag group of professional pick-pocketers (shepherded by their wizened but charming ringleader Fagin), and be taken under the wing of a charitable man of high society named Mr. Brownlow? Weaved through the threads of the narrative is the notion that while some may be stuck in their unvirtuous ways, others can be equally capable of a change of heart.
Escape Theatre’s scenic design, inclusive of disparate staircases with ropes as banisters, is rearranged to suit the plot points throughout the two acts. The Theatre Company’s costumes, the majority of which are comprised of timeworn cloth, transport the audience back to the 19th century as does Brandon Baruch’s lighting which ingeniously alternates between denoting the darkness of London and an illuminated optimism when Oliver sees a positive turn of events, finding solace in the welcoming arms of the Artful Dodger, Fagin, and other loveable scallywags.
The precocious Kayden Alexander Koshelev flourishes as the red-headed Oliver, impressing with a pitch-perfect accent and tender portrayal which continually engages the audience. We root for Oliver when he defends against insults about his fallen mother, and we grieve with him when he desires the thing that eludes him most: love. In “Where Is Love?,” among other songs, Koshelev demonstrates fantastic vocal control and emotion, sniffling between lyrics, and making us invest in his character even more than we had anticipated.
The two reprobates running the parish workhouse confining Oliver and his fellow youngsters — who are sadly provided only nutrient-devoid gruel in lieu of quality victuals — are Mr. Bumble, depicted by Andrew Metzger, and Janna Cardia who is the entertainingly eccentric Widow Corney. Metzger, who delighted as Uncle Fester in last year’s Addams Family at the Fred Kavli Theater, makes for a fervently fun but amoral Bumble who with his blue coat, wooden staff, and powerful voice only wants the kids to be thankful for him. Cardia’s Corney does appreciate him, certainly, and their steamy romance amounts to plenty of laughs.
Alkaio Thiele shows immense promise as a future headliner on the stage in his take on the Artful Dodger. Thiele steals the show in the scenes he’s in as the intrepid kid with a penchant for pilfering, but a kindhearted soul nonetheless, grabbing attention with his charisma, dance prowess, and fantastic timing. With Thiele being as polished as he is now, it’s scary to think how good he’ll be if he continues to ply his craft.
As the virtual king of his grimy den of stolen goods is Fagin who is nicely realized by longtime stalwart actor of the screen and stage: Mark Capri. Most would not think twice about quickly judging a man who teaches children to steal and disobey authority; however, Capri’s performance is layered and sweet to the extent that we feel a certain sense of gratitude on behalf of Oliver who is afforded a “home, profession, and a shilling — on credit.” Additionally, Fagin is a portrait of what a personal reclamation story can look like, which is best conveyed by Capri in the lighthearted but no less meaningful “Reviewing the Situation.”
The main antagonist of Oliver! is the snarling Bill Sikes who, unlike Fagin’s gray-area traits, is categorically dark and venomous. As Sikes, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper is ominous not only with his ferociously booming voice, but in the manner he stalks the stage and has no qualms about putting the boot to Oliver lest his enterprise as a career criminal becomes exposed.
While Sikes is fixed on his wicked path, Nancy, his girlfriend, has the capacity for goodness, commiserating with and being protective of Oliver. Monika Peña, who has heretofore wowed SoCal audiences for years, and recently finished her run as Peggy Carter in Rogers: The Musical at Disneyland, makes her incredible 5-Star debut as Nancy in a role that should win in every suitable regional theatre award category. The moment she assuredly saunters onstage in a red dress, Peña, who is a worthwhile leading lady in any production around the globe, leaves no doubt that she is the star of the show. As young as she is, Peña is strikingly seasoned, with a robust timbre and vocal agility that stuns with each successive number — in “It’s A Fine Life,” the mug-clinking revelry of “Oom-Pah-Pah,” and particularly the heart-searing “As Long As He Needs Me,” which poignantly delivers the portrait of a woman convincing herself of the irrational merit of a lover who treats her terribly.
Other skilled principals include Alex Boling’s Mr. Sowerberry, an intriguing undertaker, Clare Snodgrass’ frenzied Mrs. Sowerberry, Rianny Vasquez’s quirky Charlotte Sowerberry, Harry Cho’s insensitive Noah Claypole (boyfriend to Charlotte), Kirsten Adler’s Bet (adolescent counterpart to Nancy), Jesus A. Chavarria’s comical Dr. Grimwig and, of course, K.J. Rasheed’s Mr. Brownlow — a reminder that genuinely altruistic people do still exist in the world. Not to be overlooked is the ensemble, particularly the children on stage who get the musical off to an auspicious start with “Food, Glorious Food,” before bowling over observers in the mega number, “Consider Yourself.” Many of these youth are smoother than college-aged performers and will indubitably inherit the spotlight from the current generation of leads.
The only criticism that can be levied against this production is that as accurate as the thick Cockney accents are, at least a quarter of the lines may fall deafly on American-bred ears. As a result, because the listener is left with filling in the missing words, some of the scenes don’t land as strongly as they can.
Nevertheless, 5-Star Theatricals’ production of Oliver! is another stunner as it underscores the virtuosity of today, led by Monika Peña, and the talent of tomorrow all in one show that not only captivates but touches on essential motifs like family, home, and love. It is a classic musical for a reason and 5-Star has done its due diligence to certify that it remains that way.
5-Star Theatricals’ production of Oliver! runs only through Sunday, October 22nd. For more information on the musical, and to purchase tickets, visit 5StarTheatricals.com.