The myth of the summer doldrums for theater has been emphatically debunked thanks to North Carolina Theatre‘s extraordinary production of Oliver! Despite several revivals, for some reason Oliver! never had quite the cachet of other great musicals, even though its musical score is second to none and many of the songs had been vehicles for big hits by various artists in the 1960s and ’70s. In written comments in the program and live remarks before the show, Lise Grele Barrie, President and CEO of NC Theatre, boldly proclaims that “…we’ve assembled the most outstanding Oliver! cast ever!” After experiencing one of the most delightful evenings of musical theater in my lifetime, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Ms. Barrie’s boasting.

Oliver!, based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, premiered in London in 1960 and then opened on Broadway in 1963 where it ran for a relatively brief (as compared to other top musicals) year and a half. Nearly the entire show was the single-handed creation of British pop songwriter Lionel Bart, who wrote the script, music and lyrics.

One cannot write about this production without mentioning the NC Theatre Conservatory, the training academy that provides young people the background, mentors, and hands-on experience for nearly every aspect of musical theater. Oliver! is the perfect vehicle to highlight this unique program and to give actual stage experience to budding Broadway hopefuls. The story begins as thirty-one children, dressed in rags, line up in the aisles of the theater and march onto the stage for the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food.” We are in early 19th century London in “The Workhouse,” a prison-like facility for orphans, where they are mistreated, and where sustenance is a bowl of gruel. For having the temerity to plead “May I have more, sir,” the young Oliver Twist (Sam Poon) is taken and sold to an undertaker. Poon , in one of the great roles for a young actor/singer, was outstanding as the boy who went from rags to riches, especially in his heart-tugging performance of “Where is Love,” one of the big hits of the musical. Tim Caudle, playing Mr. Bumble, the rotund master of the workhouse, was a delightful comic relief, especially in the scenes with his eventual wife, the widow Corney (Sarah Knapp). Their duo “I Shall Scream” had the audience erupting in laughter.

Through several plot machinations, young Oliver ends up in the lair of Fagin, a criminal who befriends homeless boys, teaches them how to pickpocket, and sends them out to do such. Kevin Gray, who gets “above the title” billing playing the part of Fagin, was riveting and an all-encompassing stage presence in “Pick a Pocket or Two” and in the second act, when he reconsiders his bad behavior in “Reviewing the Situation.”

One of the leaders of the Fagin gang is the character Artful Dodger (Nicholas Kraft), who introduces Oliver to the street life in the “Consider Yourself,” the major complete company production number that was stunning in its execution and splendor.

A very disturbing plot line accompanies the most famous ballad of the show, “As Long As He Needs Me.” Sung with great expression (although with an inconsistent Cockney accent), the character Nancy (Heather Patterson King) vows to love the crook Bill Sykes (Stephen Tewksbury) despite the fact that he beats her. He eventually kills her, giving this beautiful song additional poignancy – and stupidity.

Many of the songs in Oliver! are well-know, but until seeing the musical you may not quite be able to place where they are from. Other highlights that fall in this category are the lovely “I’d Do Anything” and the lush “Who Will Buy,” which in the second act is heard with the earlier sung “Where is Love” in a masterful combination.

In these days of extreme financial austerity in the arts – especially in a high-expense venture like a musical – it is remarkable that the NC Theatre has presented Oliver! in a production that appears to have had no sacrifice of quality or authenticity. There are eleven seamless scene changes and each set is a magnificently constructed and realistic depiction of the story. The costumes are colorful and authentic, and they contributed to the identity of the characters. The nineteen live musicians, conducted by Edward G. Robinson, played at the level of any pit orchestra that you’d find on Broadway or in the West End. My only complaint was that they tended to play too loud and obscure some dialogue in a few non-song sections.

While I cannot absolutely vouch for this being “the greatest Oliver! cast ever,” I can without equivocation say that there are no weak links of any sort in this production and it exudes a diamond quality professionalism. Get re-acquainted with the wonderful story and magnificent songs, and bring the entire family.

Oliver! continues through 7/22. For details, see the sidebar.