The Luxembourg Chronicle got the opportunity to sit in on the dress rehearsal for the production of Oliver! that is taking place from Thursday 14 to Sunday 17 April 2016 at the Kinneksbond cultural centre in Mamer.
Directed by Neil Johnson and produced by Rose Flammant, this joint production by Pirate Productions asbl and New World Theatre Club asbl of Lionel Bart’s musical "Oliver!" is arguably their largest production to date.
With a total cast of 20 principal actors and 62 in the chorus, as well as a 26-strong orchestra under the direction of Philip Dutton, plus over 50 in the production team, one can only imagine the planning and effort that has gone on behind-the-scenes into the preparation of this production which sees a total of five performances, culminating in Sunday's matinee. The director has gone for two Olivers and two Dodgers, a sensible risk management strategy in case one cannot participate for whatever reason - Jack Guilfoyle played Oliver for Act I of the performance viewed, with Noam Golergant appearing for Act II.
The setting of the two-act musical drama is around 1850, in Dickensian London. From the opening prologue in the workhouse to the Finale on London Bridge, the production certainly lives up to its billing and is a massive credit to all those involved.
One of the first things that strikes you is the set which comprises a walkway spanning the entire width of the stage, with the technical team working their magic to project visuals behind it, creating a stunning setting - within the prologue this included both the exterior and subsequently the interior of the Workhouse; this is later manipulated to form a central stairway or other scenes.
Without any expansive musical lead-ins, the audience is immediately immersed into the daily life of the workhouse, with the rousing and emotive "Food, Glorious Food" ensuring that the famous line "I want some more" introduces the first of the main characters, including Mr Bumble (Patrick Weldon) and Widow Corney (Beverley Atkinson) with both their acting and particularly singing reflecting the excellent casting done by the director.
After disgracing himself in the workhouse, the undertaker Mr Sowerberry (Victor Bananno) and his wife (Bernadette Alexander) take in Oliver as an apprentice, after purchasing him from Mr Bumble, with both their voices perfect for their parts. We also meet Charlotte (Maija McGlynn) and Noah Claypole (Jasper Frank) and, shortly afterwards, Jack Hawkins, aka the Artful Dodger.
The music also significantly plays its part in creating the atmosphere, no more so than for Oliver's solo at the undertaker's when alone that first night, closely followed by "Consider yourself" started off by the Dodger, a wonderful foot-tapping and hand-clapping number that really gets the audience going...
The next character introduced is Fagin (Brian Parker), yet another superb casting and again for both his acting and singing - his presence is simply electric, and his voice a perfect rasp - and ties the various components of the story together as the audience follows the orphan's journey, both literally and figuratively, through London - one conjures up images of and makes comparisons with the late Ron Moody. Bill Sykes (Jeff Konter) and Nancy (Ruth Gillen) are next, with the latter starting off "It's a fine life" as both coarse and fun simultaneously. Young Bet (Céline Planata) looks as if she could have been born on stage, such is her presence and confidence.
Mr Brownlow (Henry Wickens) makes an appearance near the end of Act 1. All the while, Jack Guilfoyle is delivering a great character-based performance as the naïve and lost orphan, Oliver...
Act 2 starts off with Nancy's rendition of "Oom-Pah-Pah" which, when the chorus joins in, almost lifts the roof; this scene is surely Ruth's finest hour - although it lasts just a few minutes - here we see another example of the results of Allison Kingsbury's choreography which is another really strong piece of the puzzle that combines to ensure that the overall is greater than the sum of the parts. Then comes the "Who will buy my sweet red roses" which raises the singing to another level altogether, with the refrain seemingly never-ending.
Then, Fagin's solo rendition of "Reviewing the situation" with accompaniment on violin is mesmerising. This is the start of the lead-up to the finale in which the show rises to a crescendo.
There were some issues with the sound, with a couple of the actors' microphones not functioning as they should, but these were simply glitches which should be resolved by opening night. Overall, though, the strengths of the casting and the singing, along with the orchestra and the costumes - and not only Fagin's coat! - have raised this production to lofty heights that make it a "must-see", if you can get your hands on any of the remaining tickets, that is.
UPDATE - SOLD OUT: Private sales are currently taking place on the show's Facebook page here.
Photos by Geoff Thompson