Nancy (Julia Etzel), saves Oliver (Trevor Gomez) from the wrath of Bill Sykes (Ron Houk) in Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre s production of  Oliver! JAMES
Nancy (Julia Etzel), saves Oliver (Trevor Gomez) from the wrath of Bill Sykes (Ron Houk) in Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre s production of Oliver! JAMES MIILLE/TRI-VALLEY REPERTORY THEATRE ( James Miille )

Although they served up gruel in tiny amounts at Mr. Bumble's orphanage, the cast of Tri-Valley Repertory's "Oliver!" gives its audience a banquet of high-energy entertainment and pizazz in the production that plays at Livermore's Bankhead Theater through Aug. 4.

On opening night last weekend, there were probably few in the audience who hadn't seen Lionel Bart's musical version of "Oliver Twist." But the crowd loved the production to pieces and gave the show a genuine and spontaneous standing ovation.

Sure, you say in your hard-bitten, cynical way, the show was filled with a bunch of kids, so who is not going to love it? True, but these were also talented kids who knew what they were doing.

And that may be the secret to the company's production. The casting and the look and feel of the production is spot on. And the great casting is paired with great direction by John Baiocchi -- meaning that the actors know exactly what's expected of them. All told, the musical does full justice to the Charles Dickens story.

But "Oliver!" is also about the small stuff. The musical contains a series of smaller stories -- episodes, really -- that gave just about every cast member a chance to shine, even if briefly, as the story of the orphan boy, Oliver (Trevor Gomez) unfolds. It begins at the orphanage where Oliver asks for more food and runs into the wrath, and large physical presence, of Mr. Bumble (Lucas de Ayora).


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As Oliver awaits his fate, Bumble and his sweetie-to-be, the Widow Corney (Shauna Shoptaw), get a bit of quiet time and a little courtship, ending with the outstanding rendition of "I Shall Scream," a funny tune that gave the two performers a chance to blow the roof off the joint.

Bumble decides he'll sell Oliver and ends up getting a five-pound note from Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker. But Oliver refuses to be bullied by the mortuary staff and runs away into the center of London, where he is awash in the crowd until he runs into the Artful Dodger (Max DeSantis), and they perform a stunning song-and-dance duet of "Consider Yourself."

DeSantis comes alive in the musical numbers and shows a remarkable talent as a song-and-dance man, and Gomez does a terrific job in the title role, singing his tunes beautifully. Both boys make the very most of what are among the best musical comedy roles for boys in all of theater.

Dodger leads Oliver into the criminal world for boys, headed by the guile-filled and mad-as-a-hatter Fagin (an amazing Paul Plain, who has given the role a fresh and successful new presence).

In the adult criminal division, we have Bill Sykes (the delightfully menacing Ron Houk) and his insanely faithful gal pal, Nancy (Julia Etzel, whose remarkably clear and evocative voice can single-handedly fill the room with sound, fury and emotion).

And, as mentioned earlier, the entire cast shines in this magical musical, well directed by Baiocchi, with considerable assistance from choreographer Todd Aragon and musical director Cary Litchford. "Oliver!" plays on a beautiful and complex revolving set designed by Kevin Clowes.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.

'OLIVER!'
By Lionel Bart, presented by Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre.
Through: Aug. 4
Where: Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore.
Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $28-$38; 925-373-6800, www.mylvpac.com
Online: To see other Pat Craig reviews, including one of "Fortunate Daughter" in Berkeley, go to www.mercurynews.com/theater.