British invasion at EPAC: Oliver!

By on December 7, 2016

I sat down with my copy of The Weekly Chronicle, No, 23 384, dated November 1837. The headline spoke of the Poor Amendment Law, which three years after its passing has shown little effect in the view of the Poor Law Commission. The paper reported on renovations to the Houses of Parliament and relations between England and France. On the reverse side were advertisements Swans Down adhesive face powder and Colman’s Starch. There was a public notice on how to prevent cholera. This all rekindles memories as I cut my teeth covering public meetings for local newspapers; I also sold advertising for the Ephrata Review when I returned to Lancaster County.

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Alas, this wasn’t 1837. It was Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, the opening night of “Oliver!” at EPAC. The paper was an aid for the show; it presented background information for the musical based on Charles Dickens’ second novel, Oliver Twist.

Oliver (Aleko Zeppos), you see, was a product of the Poor Amendment Law, and in the opening scene we find him in one of the workhouses detailed in The Weekly Chronicle. The workhouse children, comprised of 15 young men, start the show with a well-choreographed rendition of one of the show’s most memorable songs, “Food, Glorious Food.” The boys decry their rations of gruel and long for hot sausage and mustard, peas, and pudding. Oliver and the rest of the boys are under the thumb of Mr. Bumble (Joe Myering) and his soon-to-be wife, Widow Corney (Elizabeth Pattey).

When Oliver asks for more gruel, he is branded a louse and is set to be punished by being thrown down the stairs and fed cockroaches. Before this can happen Mr. Bumble is brought to his senses and decides to sell him. No one is buying except Mr. Bowery (Carl Bomberger), the town undertaker. This is not a good fit for Oliver, who escapes his servitude and runs into The Artful Dodger (Ethan Reimel, with a great British accent) who promises to introduce him to a gentleman he knows who houses children for free. Enter Fagin (Preston Schreffler), an aging conman who uses the boys to run a ring of thieves — this is told through the tremendously entertaining number “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” At the end of Act I, Oliver is clubbed in the head by a bobby on his maiden run of thieving.

In Act 2 we find the main character under the care of Mr. Brownlow (Evan Cooper), Oliver’s mark two weeks earlier. Brownlow learns Oliver did not steal his wallet and has taken the boy under his wing to nurse him back to health. On an errand for Mr. Brownlow one day Oliver is found by the dastardly Bill Sykes (Jeff Fisher) and his abused girlfriend Nancy (Kristie Ohlinger) and returned to Fagin for fear the boy will talk to the authorities. Eventually, Nancy has a change of heart and devises a plan to return Oliver to Mr. Brownlow, but Sykes catches wind of the plot and … Well, as to not spoil the finale, you’ll have to see “Oliver!” yourself to discover its climactic ending.

Aleko Zeppos as Oliver, and Ethan Reimel as Artful Dodger (standing center, left to right) with the boys from EPAC’s “Oliver.” The show runs through Dec. 17 at Ephrata’s Sharadin Bigler Theater.

Aleko Zeppos as Oliver, and Ethan Reimel as Artful Dodger (standing center, left to right) with the boys from EPAC’s “Oliver.” The show runs through Dec. 17 at Ephrata’s Sharadin Bigler Theater.

The show is full of highlights. Reimel shows skill above his age while welcoming Oliver to Fagin’s gang during “Consider Yourself.” Mrs. Sowerberry, the undertaker’s wife, is played by Karey Getz, who adds the perfect amount of creepy to be feared and fond of at the same time. During “I Shall Scream,” Pattey once again shows EPAC theatregoers her amazing ability to command the stage with her voice. I didn’t even recognize Schreffler under his ornate costume, but his ability to transform song to storyline shone through his bearded disguise. He’s not as spry as Ron Moody (“Oliver!” the movie), but delivers a lovable, yet shifty, character in Fagin. His Fagin was as commanding as his Sir Galahad and his Lord Farquaad. Ohlinger, as usual, knows how to work a room. Her “Oom-pah-pah” opens the second act establishes Nancy as an integral part of the story.

Thespians took direction from EPAC veteran Tricia Corcoran. With more than 30 EPAC shows under her belt, the quality of her leadership shines through the characters appearance of ease. Her most recent shows include choreography for “Shrek: the Musical” and starring as Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” Preston Cuer stepped in as fight choreographer and his talent was marked by the crowd’s gasps when Sykes backhands Nancy — it’s rough. Cuer began training in stage fighting at an early age and graduated with a BFA in theatre performance from Niagara University; he currently lives in Lancaster.

Violence aside, “Oliver!” is a feel-good show, perfect for the holiday season. Think “Annie,” but set in 19th century London. The show is filled with massively strong, individual voices who command attention. The set is minimal, allowing costumes and characters to shine. As for The Weekly Chronicle, at a price of 2p, it’s a great read.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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