I was recently invited to Press Night at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford NY, billed as "an evening of great theatre and dining," to see the opening performance of "Oliver!" The production was presented by Standing Ovation Studios, "a brand new, state of the art performance educational space located in Armonk, NY. Since it was my first time at the venue, I apologize to the readers already familiar with how it works and I encourage them to skip down to the seventh paragraph for my review of the show.
My regular readers may be slightly interested to see that I drove outside the state of CT to review a show. Family members will be shocked that I drove myself to Elmsford NY and back, albeit with the help of my trusty GPS unit and a human navigator (my youngest son,) and didn't get lost once. We left over ninety minutes before our 6:15 pm seating time and were totally on schedule until we hit the highway that contained our exit into Elmsford and wasted 15 minutes sitting in the New York style traffic that I usually avoid. However, I was determined to get to this experience that had been recommended to me by Musicals at Richter director and New York resident Donald Birely as well as my school colleague Donna Wamser.
The WBT is located in what looks like an industrial park, but is a very classy building with plenty of free parking. We picked up our tickets at the box office in the lobby that was as large as a hotel check in counter. The box office crew efficiently managed the well-dressed crowd and we made our way into this unique theatre space.
The seating in the huge room reminded me of the theaters in the biggest casinos in Las Vegas. The large square stage was surrounded on three side with plush counter seating, and highly raked rows of banquet seating rose seven levels back. The stadium arrangement ensured that every seat had an unrestricted view of the stage as well as a comfortable space to enjoy their dinner.
I wasn't sure what to expect for the dinner portion of our evening and worried that my son would have food issues. The sample menu posted on their website set my mind at ease. We had a list of seven wonderful entrees from which to choose, including vegetarian and kid-friendly offerings. Our salad and rolls were efficiently delivered even before we made our selections and our programs were placed with our menus. I am hardly a food critic, but I very much enjoyed the basa stuffed with crabmeat, potato wedges, and vegetables and my son devoured his prime rib. We had plenty of time before the curtain to finish our meal and dessert with coffee or tea. Appetizers are available at an additional charge, as are luxury desserts (ordered before the first act and delivered during the 30 minute intermission,) specialty cocktails and anything else one might want from the fully stocked bar.
Twenty minutes before the show began, a gentleman in a tux took to the stage to do an extended version of house announcements. It was the first time I had ever been included in the welcome to the "esteemed members of the press." Along with the usual promotion of upcoming events, we learned that the WBT is celebrating its 40th anniversary with this season. He also carefully explained to the audience the necessity of staying in their seats during the show because the actors made liberal use of the aisles; if you didn't plan your restroom visits accordingly, you weren't paying attention.
Because I missed the Whimsicality production of Oliver, this was the first time I have ever seen Oliver! although I certainly recognized the names of the songs. "The colorful characters of Charles Dickens' classic 'Oliver Twist' come brilliantly to life in Victorian London. This beloved musical tells the tale of the orphan boy who is swept into a band of pickpockets; the Artful Dodger, the menacing Bill Sikes and the kind-hearted Nancy who are all led by the wily Fagin."
If the naysayers believe that a dinner theater cannot possibly rise to the level of outstanding productions, I beg to differ. The production values were top-notch. I had never seen a ceiling of a venue covered with a multitude of stage lights like the one we saw here. The musicians conducted by the Music Director Kurt Kelley were hidden somewhere, but sounded wonderful. Lighting designed by Bob D'Urso and sound designed by Mark Zuckerman were flawless and the costumes designed and constructed by Bottari and Case were lush and appropriate to the period. The choreography by Carrie Silvernail was joyous and the talented dancers in the ensemble did a fine job with it.
The set was especially impressive and ingenious in its design. We noticed the round cutout in the middle of the floor (a la Les Miz) and thought it might revolve, but we soon discovered that the gang's hideout would rise up out of the floor. Well-played.
The multi-aged cast was equally impressive. The students of Standing Ovation Studios (S.O.S) played the roles of the boys in the orphanage, Fagin's gang members and upper crust townspeople. There was not a weak link in this youth ensemble as they danced in unison and sang beautifully.
Sixth grader Brandon Singel got top billing as Oliver Twist in his S.O.S debut, although he appeared as Winthrop in The Music Man last summer. This young man is a talented performer and brought real heart to the title role.
The adult roles were cast with experienced talent and it showed. Equity Broadway vet John Treacy Egan did a wonderful job with the role of the mean Mr. Bumble and Regina Singel was his match as the Widow Corney. John Anthony Lopez was strong in the role of the gentle gang-leader Fagin and Todd Ritch was a charming Artful Dodger. Lucy Braid, in her WBT debut, had an amazing voice that she showed off in the complex role of Nancy and Brian Krinsky was terrifying as Bill Sykes.
The handsome John Caldara was very good as the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and Christina Tompkins played his wife and others. Cali Laspina was lovely as Nancy's friend Bet and Anthony Malchar was a riot as Dr. Grimwig. All of the sellers that soloed in "Who Will Buy?" gave a beautiful vocal performance in a well-staged number. I especially enjoyed the production numbers "Consider Yourself" and "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two."
John J. Fanelli, who along with his wife Nannette Fanelli
produced the show, has a long career in training young people in the arts. He
directed them here with loving care and it shows.