Oliver! and Next to Normal Sing and Dance around Depressing Topics

Theater Caps are bite-sized punch-packing capsule reviews by resident theater critic Elaine Liner. Use them as a reminder -- or a teaser, if you procrastinate -- of her full-length reviews in The Mixmaster's weekly sister.

Say you're not in the mood for a feel-good musical. Say you're in the mood for a show about characters whose lives are a mess. This weekend you could see two good local productions with feel-bad themes.

Oliver!, which finished its run Sunday at Lyric Stage in Irving, was a lavish revival of the 1960 Lionel Bart musical based on Dickens' Oliver Twist. With 30-plus musicians in the orchestra pit, and scenery and costumes worthy of a Broadway road tour, there was a lot going on around the small boy (13-year-old Jack Vangorden) in the lead. From orphan to larcenous street urchin, Oliver made his way through the dark streets of London with his pals, The Artful Dodger (Clayton Slee), Fagin (Jonathan Beck Reed) and Nancy (Catherine Carpenter Cox).

Cute kids by the score, plus a tuneful score by Bart made Oliver! bearable, and director Cheryl Denson inserted some smart comedic flourishes to keep the crowd scenes interesting. But note that Nancy's big solo, "As Long as He Needs Me," came after her husband Bill (Daylon Walton) smacks her around. Big-time enabler, that Nancy. And Fagin, the greedy old coot who trains the kids to be thieves, is great comic relief, but his songs, including "Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," sound klezmer-influenced. Was Oliver! anti-Semitic too?

The downer aspects of Oliver! may have weighed more heavily than they should coming the day after seeing Next to Normal, a contemporary musical at Uptown Players at Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek.

N2N, as it's been shorthanded since opening on Broadway, is a five-character musical about a woman (played by Patty Breckenridge) living with bipolar illness, chronic depression and possible schizophrenia. She makes her kids' school lunches by laying out slices of bread on the kitchen floor, which upsets her husband (Gary Floyd). And she has a tendency to speak aloud to people who don't actually exist. Therapy doesn't help and electroshock treatments result in thoughts of suicide.

Yeah, N2N goes to dark places. And then it stays there. Director Michael Serrecchia's cast at Uptown is rich with vocal talent, though Breckenridge's acting rarely strays from one angry note. Floyd's velvety voice has never sounded better. All three young actors in the cast -- Anthony Carillo, Erica Harte, Jonathan W. Gilland -- are hot newcomers to Dallas theater, and they look like contenders to be cast in WaterTower's upcoming Spring Awakening.

But as well done as it is, and with juicy secrets and surprises in the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey (music is by Tom Kitt), Next to Normal will not send you out of the theater smiling and loving life. After more than two hours of crazy-noisy sturm und drang about the effects of one person's mental illness on a family, you might leave questioning your own sanity.

Oliver! continues through June 19 at Lyric Stage, Irving. Call 972-252-2787 or lyricstage.org. Next to Normal continues through July 3 at Kalita Humphreys Theater. Call 214-219-2718 or uptownplayers.org.

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