Small-theater performance of 'Oliver' is a winner in Annapolis

Compass Rose Studio Theater will complete a successful inaugural season this spring, capped by Lionel Bart's classic musical "Oliver."

Based on Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist," the story of an impoverished orphan sold to an undertaker before escaping to join a gang of pickpockets, Bart's musical adaptation premiered in London in 1960. It ran for a record-setting 12 years and created several beloved standards including "Consider Yourself," "Where is Love?" and "As Long as He Needs Me."

Bart strips down Dickens' tale to essentials in his musical, which is appropriately shrunk further by Compass Rose director Lucinda Merry-Browne to fit her intimate theater space. Merry-Browne smartly reduces cast size to fewer orphans, eliminates some minor characters and has some actors play two roles. This also helps tighten the action.

Unconcerned about gender or stretch in dual roles, Merry-Browne has chosen a superb cast of professional and budding actors to bring a fresh vision to this sometimes dark musical. Black walls form a stark background for simple sets that are quickly moved into place to create nearly instant scene changes that add to the overall professionalism of this 15-character production.

Compass Rose is a nonprofit teaching theater company with more than 300 students enrolled at several county venues. This encourages student actors to join professionals and creates an air of spontaneity.

Contributing to this production's success is musical director Anita O'Connor, who has built a harmonious chorus of orphans and thieves to display the actors' rich vocal talents. In ensemble and solo, the members of the cast bring freshness to the familiar score. At every performance, O'Connor's musical design is executed by piano accompanists Erika Knepp and Laura Brady.

Also noteworthy are the contributions of lighting designer Paul Webster II and costume designers Julie Bays and Meaghan O'Beirne.

The cast features a skilled ensemble of five orphans and thieves played by two girls and three boys, none older than age 9: Natalya Jimenez, Aubrey Heyl, Donovan Heyl, Stephen Scholl, and Tad Clifton, who open the show with "Food, Glorious Food," joined by an enchanting Oliver, played by Sarah Grace Clifton. On opening night, this young ensemble delivered instantly engaging performances, with 8 year-old Natalya Jimenez a standout in her warm welcome.

At age 9, Sarah Clifton, a third-grader at St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis, is well along in becoming a triple-threat actor, singer and dancer. Her Oliver bravely confronts those who question his dead mother's honor to scrap convincingly with adult males, delivering every song with feeling, from a touching "Where is Love?" to a bright duet with the Artful Dodger in "Consider Yourself" and a rousing "I'd Do Anything," all with neatly executed choreography.

Transformed by Bart from Dickens' cruelly avaricious villain to a complex, colorful survivor, Fagin is given mischievous charm by charismatic Equity actor Daniel Siefring.

Never cruel, sometimes gruff, Siefring's Fagin has few illusions and is comfortably sleazy, eking out a living by training young pickpockets. Complete with nifty dance steps, Siefring comically delivers Fagin's songs, "Pick a Pocket or Two," "Be Back Soon" and most especially "Reviewing the Situation," which gains klezmer charm in Siefring's zesty delivery that laughs at the anti-Semitism once invested in this Dickens character.

Adding acting and vocal expertise is New York actress Molly Densmore, memorably debuting at Compass Rose as good-hearted streetwalker Nancy, who remains in an abusive relationship with criminal boyfriend Bill Sykes. Densmore's Nancy delivers a nuanced "It's a Fine Life," a lively music-hall number, "Oom-Pah-Pah," and a show-stopping "As Long as He Needs Me" that adds poignancy to her devotion to Sykes and telegraphs her later act of self-sacrifice.

Andre Softeland, a native of Norway with an international performing career, most recently in New York, makes his Compass Rose debut as Sykes, vigorously depicting the fearsome character while displaying a powerful operatic voice.

Corey Butler brings comic charm and enthusiasm to his role as the Artful Dodger, nimbly singing and dancing his way through "Consider Yourself" and "I'd Do Anything."

Previously behind the scenes as stage manager, Sarah Wade makes an enchanting Compass Rose on-stage debut in the multiple roles of Bet, where she displays strong vocal and dance skills, as Widow Sowerberry, where she displays her comedic skills, and as the Strawberry Seller.

"Oliver" continues at Compass Rose Studio Theatre at Eastport Shopping Center through June 3. For tickets, call the box office at 410-980-6662 or order online at


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