Theater » Theater Feature

Twists of Fate

Oliver! asks for more; Your Call gives good service.

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There's nothing wrong with Playhouse on the Square's Oliver! that a little dirt and some attention to detail can't fix. Unfortunately, it's probably too late in the game to hope for either of those things.

Playhouse on the Square hasn't yet grown into its new facility. Of the three shows to appear on the company's fabulously appointed main stage, only Frost/Nixon, a play that needs a great cast and not much else, was exceptional enough to upstage the new digs. Let's face it: Pippin had its moments, but it was about as mediocre as a "must-see" show can be. It was a great sampler, teasing audiences with servings of technical wizardry, but it never seemed finished and that resulted in a bumpy ride for actors and audiences alike. Oliver!, the musical based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist — is technically less ambitious, but like its predecessor, Playhouse's current musical seems less like a coherent production than a bundle of nifty ideas that never coalesce.

More than anything else Oliver!, directed by Courtney Oliver, feels like a play that owes money to the mob and needs to meet Fat Tony at the docks by 11 p.m. or lose its pinkie fingers. The actors dash through their parts at unsafe speeds and tromp through the director's imaginative but underachieving choreography. Dave Landis, an artist so prolific just typing his name makes me tired, plays Fagin like the stock character he's become, but at least he takes the time to make Dickens' quirky thief as endearing and as repulsive as he needs to be. It's a memorable performance in a show that wants to be more than adequate but almost never is.

Oliver's Oliver! has aspirations. It clearly wants to be as severe and savage as its source material, and Nick Mozak's set, which implies an urban European setting but never feels particularly English, could easily double as a prison yard. It's a nice touch, and it might even work if everything onstage didn't seem so institutionally clean. It's impossible to imagine that the dirt on all the orphans' cheeks came from anywhere other than a makeup kit.

Rory Dale's Mr. Hyde-like take on the murderous Bill Sikes won't appeal to everybody, but his brutal beating of his girlfriend Nancy (beautifully sung by Hannah Dowdy) may be the production's most honestly Dickensian moment.

Ty Lenderman is a sweet-voiced Oliver, but he's too easily overpowered by louder, busier castmates. There are moments when the show's title character needs to own the stage, and that's never allowed to happen.

Through June 6th

Emily Yellin, the Memphis-based author of Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us — a jarring, funny, always humane peek inside the world of customer service — says there was no separation anxiety when she agreed to let Our Own Voice adapt her book to the stage. She's known the company's artistic director, Bill Baker, for years and trusted his aesthetic.

"I think he really got the spirit of the book," says Yellin, who was amazed that Baker & Co. had taken a book that's about frustration and developed it into a quirky love story.

OOV's take on Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us is divided into two distinctive parts. It begins and ends with a fairly traditional (well, traditional for OOV, anyway) narrative starring the always excellent Pamela Poletti as a lovelorn customer-service manager. She thinks she's met the man of her dreams online, but he turns out to be an extremely dissatisfied customer. Your Call also functions as a launching pad for Memphis' own version of the Complaints Choir, an internationally popular movement in performance art that aims to convert anger and frustration into art using the medium of choral singing.

Your Call is insightful and disarmingly funny throughout the first act. Things get rockier after intermission as the play becomes increasingly didactic. Your Call is both a good show and a good example of why I think Our Own Voice is one of Memphis' most exciting theater companies even though it would be much more effective, entertaining, and (dare I say it?) commercially viable if the play's dramatic and musical parts could be integrated.

Through May 30th

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