What with a cast numbering more than 70, the Cockpit in Court production of "Oliver!" puts seemingly every urchin in Essex on stage at Essex Community College.
As an ambitious mounting of the Lionel Bart musical based on Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist," this production doesn't stint when it comes to suggesting the crowded slums inhabited by Oliver and his fellow orphans. If anything, the stage is so packed with grimy-faced, Cockney dialect-spewing kids that the theater really should rename itself Cockney in Court for the duration of the run.
Enjoyable as this production is -- and not just to the multitude of parents and siblings in the audience -- it still needs, to borrow the title of one song, a bit more "Omm-pah-pah." The orphan chorus produces surprisingly little volume in early scenes like the one in which the daily ration of gruel is being spooned out. Come on, kids, shout for your supper!
Fortunately, the most important of these little rascals, Oliver Twist, is played by an actor blessed with a high-pitched and yet assertive voice that makes the most of the line: "Please, sir, I want some more." As Oliver, a fifth-grader from Bel Air named Kevin Korczynski has a good handle on the role. Incidentally, he also looks a little bit like Macaulay Culkin, with the crucial difference that the local lad can act.
You'll have a chance to check this out for yourself, because director/musical director/conductor Edward M. Shipley and choreographer Jennifer Kropkowski astutely take advantage of every opportunity to have Oliver and the rest of the London mob use theater aisles as if they were sidewalks.
As you'd expect in such a large-scale production, not every member of the youthful chorus is always in step. However, you'd have to be a mean-spirited observer to scold teen-age actors for moving this way when they should move that way.
Where adults might be taken to task, however, is for stage direction that pretty much keeps things moving along all night long and then nearly collapses in a clumsily staged dramatic finale.
Among the pleasures prior to those confusing final minutes are supporting performances by Roger Buchanan as Mr. Bumble and Phyllis J. Clingan as Mrs. Corney, two big-voiced workhouse administrators whose bawdy business in "I Shall Scream" gets us in the mood for a musical that revels in low comedy.
The musical also indulges in plenty of Victorian melodrama, as in the suitably caricatured performances of Sheila Meyers as an undertaker's wife, Mrs. Sowerberry, whose menacing laugh JTC makes her sound like Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West, and David Schapiro as the thieving Fagin, who is only too happy to teach juvenile delinquents how to "Pick a Pocket or Two."
Best of all are Steve Moody as a limber-limbed Artful Dodger, who does "Consider Yourself" with the enthusiasm of a music hall performer determined to knock us out, and Joyce Shipley as a tough lady named Nancy who displays her gentler side in "As Long As He Needs Me."
Where: Cockpit in Court Summer Theater, Essex Community College
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Aug. 7. There will be two performances on Aug. 7, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Call: (410) 780-6369