Review: Atlanta Lyric botches classic musical ‘Oliver!’

Is there anything more antithetical to the very concept of “live” musical theater than a canned instrumental track? To what degree does the dubious practice of using prerecorded music essentially lower the theatrical art form to a level of glorified karaoke?

Ordinarily, it’s supposed to be the members of a band or orchestra who accompany the singers, instead of the other way around — where the performers on stage are basically hamstrung, not so much tapping or expressing the genuine humor or emotion of their songs as mainly just keeping in step with the fixed beats and rhythms of a programmed soundtrack.

Imagine, if you will (or if you even can), prerecording all of the vocals in a show, and then simply letting the actors lip-sync to them. Ridiculous, right? But what’s the difference, really, when you shudder to think about it?

And so it is that Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production of “Oliver!,” writer-composer-lyricist Lionel Bart’s popular 1960s musical adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist,” employs live vocalists accompanying orchestrations that aren’t — merely the first and most obvious sign of things to come, in terms of the general dearth of freshness or spontaneity rushing throughout director Heidi Cline McKerley’s show.

For anyone unfamiliar with the original Dickens story, the titular young orphan (portrayed here by Vinny Montague) escapes his dire existence in an oppressive workhouse for the mean streets and dark alleys of London. After falling in with a ragged gang of urchin pickpockets, he eventually lives happily ever after with his wealthy grandfather.

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For those who haven’t seen the Oscar-winning movie based on Bart’s rendition of it, the score features such tunes as “Food, Glorious Food,” “Where Is Love?,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Be Back Soon,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Who Will Buy?” and “Reviewing the Situation.”

Cristina Dinella serves as music director of the Lyric staging. The marginal choreography is by Bubba Carr. The show’s production values are rather unremarkable on the whole, including the drab scenic design of Jennifer Rose Ivey and Ben Rawson’s bland lighting. At least the Victorian era costumes by Nicole Clockel are nice.

Less surprising is the director’s nepotistic casting of her husband, Jeff McKerley, in the plum part of Fagin, who leads the den of thieves that threatens to corrupt poor Oliver. The actor isn’t necessarily too young for the role, but he does come off as a bit youngish – – more lovable than licentious, like a ponytailed dandy when the character ought to be slovenly and shadier.

Elsewhere, local stalwarts Brian Kurlander and Jennifer Alice Acker appear as the menacing Bill Sykes and his ill-fated girlfriend, Nancy. But it’s Atlanta newcomer Colby Howell who stands out as the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s sidekick, delivering a singularly invigorating performance in a show that’s otherwise about as inanimate as, well, a canned music track.

THEATER REVIEW

“Oliver!”

Through June 23. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday (June 22). $33-$63. Jennie T. Anderson Theatre (at the Cobb Civic Center), 548 S. Marietta Parkway, Marietta. 404-377-9948. atlantalyrictheatre.com.

Bottom line: A stodgy, labored disappointment.

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