Fierce, hauntingly beautiful ‘Oliver!’ at the Palace: As dark as it is compelling

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A fantastical steampunk treatment of “Oliver” at the Palace, now showing through Oct. 1. Courtesy Photo

When my best friend Julianna casually invited me to the premier of Oliver! at the Palace Theatre, I don’t think she expected my level of excitement.  Of course I wanted to attend a showing of one of my favorite musicals, which I’ve adored ever since I was cast in my elementary school’s production back in sixth grade.  I jumped at the chance to relive the magic of my first acting experience, and couldn’t wait to see a fresh portrayal of the classic Dickens story of a young orphan boy named Oliver Twist, and the many misfits he encounters on the sordid streets of 19th century London.

When we arrived at the Palace on Friday night, we were welcomed with complimentary champagne and a buzzing audience of all ages, who clapped thunderously as the curtains rose to present the iconic first scene of the play.  I immediately had flashbacks to my childhood acting days, as Oliver Twist (played by Gavin Swartz), empty bowl in hand, approaches the orphanage master, Mr. Bumble (William Hartery), with one simple question that would change his fate forever: “Please, sir? I want some more.”

Mesmerizing performances from left, Nancy (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner), Oliver (Gavin Swartz) and Fagin (Hassan Nazari-Robati). Courtesy Photo

What followed was a fierce and hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the classic musical. The creative use of lighting and backdrop created a dreamy aura throughout the play, which was suggestive of the mysterious alleyways and backstreets where most scenes take place.  The bright steampunk costumes contrasted with the dark themes surrounding a child’s life as he is sent from a neglectful orphanage, to a demented undertaker’s home, to the underground world of pickpocketing headed by Fagin (Hassan Nazari-Robati) a sleazy caretaker for the abandoned children of the city. I was blown away by the children and teens who depicted the orphans and pickpockets of the play.  From Swartz, a soft-spoken boy who can belt out a tune like no other, to Shane Boucher, who plays the Artful Dodger, the manipulative yet charming leader of the pack, I was happy to live vicariously through their talent as I reminisced about my own forgotten dreams of Broadway stardom as a kid.

From left, Maria Nalette, Jules Robidoux and Rebecca Howard, for “Oliver” night out at the Palace.

While watching the play, I realized some of the adult themes that went over my 12-year-old head, including the serious domestic violence relationship between two main characters: Nancy (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner), the kind-hearted woman who is being abused and controlled by her boyfriend, Bill Sykes (Troy Bruchwalski).  While Nancy wants to help Oliver find a happy life, she is torn by her “love” for Bill, who wants to exploit Oliver for monetary gain, and forces Nancy to help him do so.  

During Nancy’s ballad where she bemoans her situation while refusing to leave her abuser, I turned and whispered to Julianna, “I can’t believe we performed this play in elementary school, and didn’t even talk about how messed up this relationship was.”  Watching the culmination of this terrible relationship made me realize how important it is to talk openly with children about the violence they witness on the screen and the stage.  During my own experience acting in Oliver! these domestic violence issues were never talked about or explained to the young cast.  Even though Nancy chose to stay with a violent man, of course her treatment was not her fault, however we cannot expect children to understand these nuances without talking to them candidly about these issues.  

The positive and bold direction by Artistic Director Carl Rajotte did not shy away from the graphic yet powerful portrayal of violence in the context of a gritty story that ultimately uplifts you with the strength of characters – Nancy, the protector, and Oliver, brave enough to speak up against the mistreatment of orphans. I left the theatre with a deeper understanding and appreciation for Oliver! and the complex cast of characters who bring the play to life.  

The Palace once again put on a remarkable performance that I would recommend to anyone who appreciates dark humor, good music, and nostalgia for Dickensian London.  Not only is this play a visual and audio masterpiece, but also stands the test of time as a cry for social justice in an unfair world full of power imbalances. Bravo!

⇒ Click here now to reserve the best seat in the house, for Oliver!

Remaining shows:

Friday September 22, 2017 7:30 PM
Saturday September 23, 2017 7:30 PM
Saturday September 23, 2017 2:00 PM
Sunday September 24, 2017 2:00 PM
Thursday September 28, 2017 7:30 PM
Friday September 29, 2017 7:30 PM
Saturday September 30, 2017 2:00 PM
Saturday September 30, 2017 7:30 PM
Sunday October 1, 2017 2:00 PM

Tickets: Children (6-12): $25 Adults $39-$45. This show includes some adult themes. There is no official rating system for live theatre. We encourage you to use your judgment based on your child’s age and maturity level.

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