2006 Season

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This darker 'Oliver!' gives reason to love

Newsday Staff Writer
May 19, 2006

"Oliver!" - the first show I saw on Broadway, in 1964 - spoiled me. I thought all musicals were graced with a score as rich as Lionel Bart's. But if the Dickens-inspired masterpiece has a weakness, it's that the songs ring too optimistically for such a dark tale.

Fortunately, the Broadway-led cast in Gateway Playhouse's season opener adds psychological layers to "Oliver's" upbeat tempo.

Flame-haired Daina Michelle Griffith, as Nancy, the bargirl who rescues the orphaned Oliver from a den of thieves, torches us with "I'd Do Anything" and rouses us with a mug-thumping "Oom-Pah-Pah." And we see in her desperate exuberance that she's just whistling past the graveyard. As directed by Bill Castellino, it makes perfect dramatic sense in depicting the dire straits of the Dickensian underclass.

Set designer Kelly Tighe tempers the mood with silhouette skylines of grimy 19th century London. We can understand, if not forgive, workhouse proprietor Mr. Bumble's girth and mirth because his situation has made life fat and happy for him. As played by Michael Farina, who moved from Gateway's "42nd Street" last summer to play God in Broadway's "In My Life," Bumble applies a piercing tenor to his lusty "I Shall Scream" duet with Widow Corney (Susan Jacks), and to the mercenary "Boy for Sale."

He indentures young Oliver Twist to comically ghoulish undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Mischa Kischkum and Melinda Tanner of Broadway's "The Robber Baron"). Escaping, Oliver is lured off the streets by pick-pocketing Artful Dodger, a suitably nimble Eric Shelley, who delivers the boy to Fagin, the notorious pedo-leech, played like a fallen gentleman by Raul Aranas ("King and I," "Flower Drum Song" and "Miss Saigon" on Broadway.)

After getting arrested on his maiden pickpocket mission, Oliver is delivered to venerably wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Michael Hayward-Jones, Broadway: "Me and My Girl," "Evita" and others). But the boy is nabbed again by frightful Fagin alum, Bill Sykes, boomingly sung with an ax-handle for a prop by Dan Cooney, who was among the latter-day populace of Broadway's "Les Mis."

In the title role, Dante Baldassin, a student at Prince of Peace Regional Catholic School in Sayville, delivers "Where Is Love" with a sweet soprano and an endearing adopt-me tilt of his head. We want to hug the orphan, which, in the end, is the point of "Oliver!" the musical, and "Oliver Twist," the novel.

OLIVER! Musical by Lionel Bart. At Gateway Playhouse, 215 North Country Rd., Bellport, through June 3. Tickets, $36-$42; 631-286-1133. Seen May 10.


review: oliver at gateway playhouse

Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Dickens’s classic Oliver Twist was an instant success in the West End and on Broadway, when it debuted just over forty years ago. The current revival that opened the Gateway Playhouse’s 57th season is still lively and filled with songs such as “As long as he needs me” and “I’d do anything” that most people will know and are likely to come away from the theater singing or whistling.

This is a show of pure enjoyment because Dickens’s vitriolic attack in his novel on the evils of mid-19th century society in England, with its misery and poverty for so many of the poor and disadvantaged, was largely expurgated by Bart. The director also chose to soften the character of Fagin, the leader of the band of trained child pickpockets whom he employs on the streets of London to steal handkerchiefs, watches and wallets from passersby in the street.

Raul Aranas, who stars as Fagin, has played the Engineer in several productions of Miss Saigon, including spells on Broadway and in London’s West End; the Engineer, as a character, is the modern day version of Fagin. They both have that almost obsequious veneer of nicety and friendliness but deep down are really only concerned with getting rich by any means, usually unlawful ones. Given this, it was surprising that he chose, in this production, to play Fagin as a friendly, non-Jewish, almost avuncular figure, far too clean and well-dressed, and his vaguely upper class English accent really was totally out of place. The setting, after all, is Victorian London’s East End and unless voice coaches are going to be employed to ensure reasonably accurate accents, I believe it would be better suited for directors to let actors use their own American-English accents; after all, we are talking about “two countries separated by a common language”! You could even transplant this musical to New York’s infamous Five Points district because the surroundings of that time and the message would still ring true.

The title role was played with great charm and stage presence by Dante Baldassin, a fifth grade student and a product of Gateway’s own acting courses. He looks the true wide-eyed innocent and almost certainly melted the maternal hearts of the ladies in the audience as he wistfully inquired “Where is love” at a time when his already lousy life is gradually getting lousier.

Another one of Dickens’ great characters is the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s able first lieutenant, still only a kid but street-smart beyond his years and very attached to Nancy, the downtrodden girlfriend of the vicious Bill Sykes. Eric Shelley made a great Dodger and Daina Michelle Griffith, as Nancy, was truly a lively Cockney girl, the epitome of the battered girlfriend who piteously keeps going back for more, just “As long as he needs me” as she piteously sings after being subjected to yet another bout of mindless violence. Dan Cooney looked the part of the evil Sykes, who would just as soon hit any man who looks at him the wrong way but again, maybe because of trying to acquire a difficult accent, his speech pattern was far less intimidating and threatening.

In the opening setting the poor unfortunates of the orphanage are seen laboriously working and then eating their pitiful food – all of which leads Oliver to the classic but ill-fated step of asking, “Please, sir can I have some more?” to the portly and obviously well fed Beadle, a role very amply filled by Michael Farina who goes on to court the widow Corney, played by Susan Jacks.

You can’t stage Oliver without lots of kids. They sang well, they moved around the stage like pros and I am sure there were a lot of proud parents there to join in the well-deserved applause for their efforts.

This is a production that also requires a large adult cast and they were all very well balanced and a reflection of strong casting choices. Michael Hayward-Jones was a cultured caring benefactor of Oliver in the role of Mr. Brownlow; Michelle Ventimilla as Bet, Nancy’s friend, shared her liveliness and also had the best Cockney accent, and Mischa Kischkum and Melinda Tanner made the most of their cameo roles of Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, and his wife.

Go and see Oliver. It really is a show for the whole family and you can’t say that very often today.

–Roy Bradbrook

Gateway Playhouse is located at 215 South Country Road in Bellport. Shows are Tues - Fri at 8 p.m., Sat at 4 and 8:30 p.m. Sun at 7 p.m., matinees every Thurs at 2 p.m. Call 631-286-1133.

Long Island Advance

Mixed Bag At Gateway’s Oliver

Opening night miscues aside, play has much to offer

By Brian Curry
May 18, 2006

Much is said about a play’s opening night, that supposedly glorious day when all the work and practice are forgotten as the curtain rises and the floodlights come on. That culmination of all the blood, sweat and tears ending in rousing curtain calls and a standing ovation.

The reality is that it can be a rather herky-jerky, push and pull sort of show as both actors and their inanimate props try to establish a flow, a continuity and start meshing like the fine-tuned machine that they know they can and hopefully will be.

Such were the problems last Wednesday night for the opener of the Gateway Playhouse’s 57th season Oliver at the landmark playhouse on South Country Road in Bellport. A few technical glitches and prop malfunctions (like a wheel that comes off in the very first scene) marred what was an otherwise decent show.

Oliver is based on Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece Oliver Twist and premiered on Broadway in 1963 with a book written by Lionel Bart. It garnered 10 Tony nominations and took home four of them, including best composer and lyricist with now classic songs like “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” and “Where Is Love”.

Oliver himself is played by Dante Baldassin, a local fifth-grader who at first almost appears too small and fragile for the title role, but seems to get stronger as the play moves on. Baldassin is a newcomer to Gateway’s main stage, but a regular student of their acting classes and a regular in roles on other stages. It’s a gutsy move by the Gateway to rest the play on his young shoulders and it thankfully pays off.

The rest of the cast of Oliver boasts a tremendous amount of experience with a bunch of impressive Broadway, off-Broadway and television credits, as well as many return performers from Gateway’s previous seasons.

Dan Cooney is the evil “Bill Sykes” and wowed them last year in Gateway’s Evita playing Che Guevara. Raul Aranas does a wonderful turn as the cunning “Fagin”. Aranas was last seen at the Gateway as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, a role he practically can call his very own since he’s done it on Broadway, on the London stage and in the national company where he won the prestigious Helen Hayes award. Michael Farina, so good in last year’s 42nd Street does well as Mr. Bumble.

Michael Hayward-Jones is a quiet, distinguished “Mr. Brownlow” and presenting the large, younger-set group was a lively, cheeky “Artful Dodger” played by another Gateway newcomer, Eric Shelley.

But the major accolades should rightfully go to yet another first-timer under the Gateway’s lights. With just the right amount of cockney moxie and spirit and a take-your-breath-away voice, Daina Michelle Griffith wows everybody in the pivotal role of “Nancy.” Leading spirited ensemble songs for the most part, her star shines most brightly in a sad solo “As Long As He Needs Me,” an emotional song which can be taken many different ways.

One surprising disappointment is the set. Long time scenic designer Kelly Tighe, who has created Bellport sets for everything from the wonderful job on Cats to the masterful and innovative Aida set from last year, tries to draw a stark dark picture of a dirty, sooty Victorian England. The major props are huge black sliding panels that act almost like a curtain for scene changes. However, they are loud, clumsy, and prone to have a mind of their own, and one finds themselves watching what they will do rather than where the new scene has led us to.

So once the opening day bugs are ironed out, Oliver should settle down to a nice successful run. It’s like a pro pitcher who has to pitch an inning or two to find his rhythm, but settles down to pitch a shutout gem.

Oliver will play at the Gateway through June 3. For tickets or more information call the playhouse at 286-1133 or visit their website at www.gatewayplayhouse.com.

South Shore Press

Oliver! Warms Hearts At The Gateway Playhouse

By Genevieve Salamone

Gateway Playhouse opened its 57th season on Wednesday, May 10, with the heartwarming tale of Oliver, the orphan boy who just wanted a little more than what life had given him.

Oliver! was written by Lionel Bart, and is based on the Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1963 and ran for almost two years, earning four Tony Awards out of 10 nominations. Theater-goers will enjoy the uplifting music of Dickens’ timeless story, including “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “Pick A Pocket Or Two,” and “As Long As He Needs Me,” among many others.

With Broadway talent gracing Gateway’s stage and a brilliant set from the creative mind of Gateway designer Kelly Tighe, 18th Century London, with all its darkness and cruelty, comes to life in a big way.

Five seasoned Broadway actors joined the cast of Oliver!, and with them the professionalism and excellence Long Islands have come to expect of Gateway.

Playing the pompous Mr. Bumble, owner of the ghastly workhouse Oliver has resided in, is Gateway alumnus Michael Farina (42nd Street) who portrays the overbearing peacock wonderfully, with his hilarious antics and ridiculous attire.

Raul Aranas as the wily Fagin, leader of the pick-pocketing gang will make you howl with laughter with his performance of “Pick A Pocket Or Two” and “Reviewing The Situation”.

Another Gateway favorite, Dan Cooney (Jesus Christ Superstar, Kiss Me Kate, Evita) returns to the stage as the cruel outlaw Bill Sykes, who profits from Fagin’s gang of thieves and pickpockets.

Dante Baldassin as Oliver embodies the essence of the lovable Charles Dickens character, portraying the brave but defiant youth perfectly. Seeing children acting onstage is always something special, and Baldassin delivers strong vocals and a tangible stage presence among seasoned actors. Baldassin’s rendition of “Where Is Love?” is sweet and tender, making your heart go out to the lonely little boy, orphaned at birth and mistreated during his short life.

Stealing the show, vocally speaking, was the talented Daina Michelle Griffith, making her debut on the Gateway stage with a bang. As Nancy, the thieving beauty with a killer secret, Griffith captivates the audience with her powerhouse vocals and awesome stage presence. Griffith sings her heart out in her performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” and the emotion emanating from her voice will leave you staring, mouth agape, wondering how so much voice could come out of a single being.

Directing and choreographing Gateway’s Oliver! is Bill Castellini, who brings the story to life through the talented cast. Under the musical direction of Gateway favorite Jeffrey Buchsbaum, the music of Oliver! is soulful and sharp, enticing viewers to sing along and tap their feet to the lyrical notes of a century-old tale.

Tickets for Gateway’s Oliver! are on sale now, and the show runs through June 3. For tickets and information call 631-286-1133, visit the Bellport box office, or www.gatewayplayhouse.com.

Southampton Press

‘Oliver!’ Showing Signs Of Its Advancing Years

By Lee Davis
May 25, 2006

Some musicals make the trip through time almost entirely unscathed, arriving in their revivals (depending upon the revival) nearly as fresh and full-bodied as they were on opening night. But, sad to state, “Oliver!” Lionel Bart’s 1962 antic musicalization of the Charles Dickens tale of Oliver Twist, at least in its present workmanlike incarnation at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, is showing its age.

Time and travel have left some dust on its once startlingly original and engrossing self. Even Lionel Bart’s score, for which he won the 1962 Tony, beating out Bock and Harnick’s—as it has turned out—more durable score for “She Loves Me,” has a tinny sound, once the lush string sections have been replaced by a synthesizer.

Admittedly, one of the major actors in the original “Oliver!” was Sean Kenny’s Tony Award-winning, multilevel set, resembling a wooden labyrinth set on its side, and through which the multiple characters and incidents threaded their intriguing ways in dazzling juxtaposition. In Bellport, Kelly Tighe does what he can with London cutouts and a roundtable. But a great deal of the simultaneous motion and most sadly, the awful fate of Nancy at the hands of Bill Sykes, loses a great deal of its impact.

That said, there is, as usual at the Gateway, a lot of professionalism on stage. And there’s the absolutely surefire opening, a gaggle of gritty young boys singing their hearts out for food, glorious food. Beats there a heart so hard that can resist this? Not ’ardly, guvnah.

And, too, the Gateway has a heartwarming and delightful Oliver in Dante Baldassin, a fifth grade student at Prince of Peace Catholic School and at the Gateway acting classes, from which a goodly portion of the captivating kids on stage have obviously been cast. Possessed of a whimsical way and a sweet voice, Master Baldassin has just the right balance of stage know-how and innocence to carry off the role with winning captivation.

Good opening. Good Oliver. Then, however, Lionel Bart throws a curve for adults, which, at the Gateway, turns into a knuckleball. Bart’s choice, at this point in the show, of a comic duet between the Widow Carney (Susan Jacks) and Mr. Bumble (Michael J. Farina) is, unless it’s a star turn, downright show-stalling.

Both Ms. Jacks and Mr. Farina have fine and elegant voices, but they’ve apparently been directed by director/choreographer Bill Castellino to play for children’s laughs—overreacting and mugging in extremis. The same fate befalls Melinda Tanner and Mischa Kischkum as the Sowerberries under the weight of equally cartoonish direction. Well, there are plenty of morning and afternoon matinees scheduled during this run of “Oliver!” and the scenes should please the under-7 set mightily.

There’s a fine ensemble–peppy and attractive, fine singers and dancers all. The choreography given them by Mr. Castellino varies from rep plot, in which the routines could just as well be in “Oklahoma!” to a period perfect and raucous realization of the Act II opener, “Oom-Pah-Pah.”

As the Artful Dodger, Eric Shelley is a delight, bringing the show to its first sign of true life with the exuberant “Consider Yourself,” matching vaudeville turns with Nancy (Daina Michelle Griffith) in the sweet and tuneful “I’d Do Anything,” and carrying forth his role as major domo of the pickpockets with warm panache.

Dan Cooney is a menacingwithout-caricature Bill Sykes, and he handles his big number, “My Name,” with growling, big-voice intensity, dampened somewhat by a tendency to drop the ends of musical phrases.

This is, of course, only prologue. As in the original “Oliver!” the main starring roles belong to Fagin and Nancy. In 1962, Fagin was portrayed by Clyve Revill in an astonishingly gripping creation. Instantly hateable, growling and lumbering around the stage in rags, a gigantic beard and flashing eyes, he was the embodiment of considered evil, snaring his band of pickpockets and cheating them too.

And so, when his second act moment arrived, the marvelously constructed “Reviewing the Situation,” which Mr. Revill delivered as a musical epiphany, slowly peeling away the evil facade to reveal a struggling, possibly moral being beneath, it was an enormously touching and character-building moment.

At the Gateway, Raul Aranas, undeniably effective as the Engineer in Gateway’s production of “Miss Saigon,” unfortunately layers some of the Engineer into his present portrayal of Fagin. The effect is of a feeling-less and mendacious gentleman heading up an illegal enterprise. Without feeling, the potential for reform is absent, too. And so the magic moment of self-discovery discovers no new self at all, and ends with a little vaudeville kick of Mr. Aranas’s trailing foot—and the sense that a superior talent hasn’t really been engaged.

And so that leaves the starring role to Nancy, and Daina Michelle Griffith takes the role and runs with it, pouring into it all the intensity and heartbreak and pent up energy that the role demands, and then some. Given a role that simply wouldn’t be written today and a song that’s a statement all in itself of the distance in time travel from what would be acceptable to women in a 1962 audience to what would be even tolerated by a 2006 female audience, Ms. Griffith erases the difference.

She plunges in and delivers such a transfixing version of the show’s one ballad, “As Long as He Needs Me,” (all about Bill Sykes, who has just beaten her up) that the number’s place in the show transcends its contemporarily self-destructive content and emerges as a heartrending cry of pain and missed happiness.

And Ms. Griffith doesn’t end there. She ignites the bawdy earthiness of “It’s a Fine Life,” bounces gently into a sweetly affecting duet with the Dodger in “I’d Do Anything,” and runs through a gamut of advancing emotions in her protective relationship with Oliver. It’s a true star turn. And so, the Gateway’s present production of “Oliver!” should delight its children’s audiences, and provide adults with some intermittent and heartwarming rewards, too.

“Oliver!” continues at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport through June3. Performances are everynight except Monday with a number of matinees. The box office number is 286-1133.


Copyright © 2006 Gateway Playhouse