Most stagings of the smash 1960s Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!” suffer from curdling cuteness and excessive exuberance, qualities paradoxically at odds with the dark Dickens novel “Oliver Twist” from which the work was freely adapted. Director David Bell happily never leaves Dickens far behind in his innovative and imaginative Marriott holiday production of the work that manages to strike the perfect balance between Victorian social commentary and contemporary entertainment. The threats in this staging are real, not buffoonish; Bill Sykes made especially so by the cutting of his only song in the show. Still, when pipes are needed, they are provided, most especially from Kate Fry’s impassioned Nancy in “As Long as He Needs Me” and surprisingly, from Oliver himself, played by Naperville seventh grader Michael Notardonato who makes the often dull “Where Is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” virtual showstoppers without succumbing to showbiz kid obnoxiousness a la warbling “Annie”s. This is an Oliver who convincingly reacts to the evils around him with vulnerability and involvement, which helps the credibility of all that is happening around him enormously and which keeps the children in the audience deeply engaged. This is an “Oliver!” where it hard to tell who are the real villains: the thieves in the story or the greedy government bureaucrats—which, of course, is precisely what Dickens had in mind. (Dennis Polkow)
Through Feb. 12, Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire; (847)634-0200.