Dickens alive and well at Berkeley Rep

The words and world of Charles Dickens come alive in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s current production of “Oliver Twist,” a show that clearly does justice to the literary master’s intentions. Yet while it captures the viewers’ intellect and imagination, it doesn’t quite fill the heart.

Not only does this adaptation by Neil Bartlett stay true to the Dickensian spirit of social satire, it also features musical interludes that aren’t pop songs, but whimsical narration featuring Dickens’ own words sung by a versatile, likable cast fully capable of many-part harmony. (Music is by Gerard McBurney.)

Bartlett, who also directed the successful original London production of the show, presents a vibrantly dingy, harsh 1830s London, nicely realized by set and costume desginer Rae Smith. The classic tale has orphaned 10-year-old Oliver (Michael Wartella, who’s not a child) sent away from the work house, after asking for more food, to a unforgiving undertaker’s business, then finally to a den of thieves.

Of course, it’s the feisty Artful Dodger (Carson Elrod, who, in a clever touch, also serves as the show’s main narrator) who leads the youngster to the charismatic Fagin (Ned Eisenberg), the ringleader of the crooks.

Bartlett directs the actors to be over-the-top, and, with this selection of melodrama, serves up clever theatricality at the expense of sentiment. The “bad” characters sneer and bumble around (remember, they’re most of the cast in Dickens’ England, a good vs. evil universe), and they’re mildly amusing, but they don’t make much of an emotional impact. Neither does “good,” wide-eyed Oliver.

Eisenberg,as Fagin, does make an impression with his deception, when he first casts his spell on the boy, who believes this strange and amazing man will take care of him — something he’s never known before.

It’s at that point fans (including this one) of the popular, and yes, sentimental, 1968 movie musical “Oliver!” wish for a little bit of Lionel Bart and a nice rendition of “You’ve Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two.”

Oliver Twist

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley

When: Tuesdays through Sundays; closes June 24

Tickets: $45 to $61

Contact: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org

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