by Lionel Bart
April 28 - June 3, 2012


Please, Compass, I Want Some More: Compass Rose Theater's OLIVER!
May 31, 2012 - BroadwayWorld.com

We can't all start at the Kennedy Center. Each actor, director, producer, costume designer and stage manager pays their dues, learns the ropes, and works their way up the "theatrical ladder", proving their talent and skills in a very intense industry.

Most any in the industry should consider themselves lucky to stumble upon Compass Rose Theater, both a workshop studio and professional performance theater founded in the belief that theater education creates performance excellence. This small, shoe-box theater takes local talent - great local talent - and creates an open platform for pure, unadulterated dramatic creation. (read more)

Compass Rose is now hosting Oliver!, a musical by Lionel Bart, through June 3, 2012. Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, founder of Compass Rose, the theater pulls off a delightful, tender, and humorous production, highlighting a host of talent from the DC / MD / VA region.

Oliver!, the first musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel, Oliver Twist, premiered in the West End in 1960 and has been making its way - successfully - across theater stages ever since. The original Dickens novel has been simplified substantially for the musical translation and Fagin, in particular, a key character in the Dickens plotline, is represented as more of a comical character than as a villain in the stage adaptation.

The star of the performance is, of course, Oliver, played by Sarah Grace Clifton. An orphan boy, Oliver wins the hearts of the audience through his innocence and crafty ways as he makes his way through London in the 1850s. He naively stumbles into trouble with Fagin and his crew, and the plot twists and turns from that point forward as he navigates his way through the evil characters of London's dark streets. Clifton, at only 9 years old, shows great promise and has a charming youthful voice. She clearly is capable of hitting key notes, and should not be shy about singing with confidence and gusto - the talent is there: let it shine!

The character of Fagin, played by Daniel Siefring, is the ring-leader of the pick-pocket-ing children. He does a fantastic job of conveying…well…evil. His greasy hair and gruesome charcoal-stained fingers instantly convey that he is "the bad guy". In this particular case, however, The Bad Guy has a humorous and softer side, and Seifring expertly balances the two, at times exaggerating Fagin's ridiculousness to make him more human. His voice is dynamic and he clearly is capable of playing solid roles in the professional theater arena. His rendition of "Reviewing the Situation" is clever, wily, and absolutely worthy of a Broadway stage.

In addition to harnessing thriving local talent, Compass Rose also has done a wonderful job rounding up "behind-the-scenes" contributors critical to putting on its successful productions. The choreography, by Molly Densmore, maximizes Compass Roses's limited stage space and puts each square inch to effective use, creating constant physical action to enhance each scene. Additionally, Anita O'Connor's musical direction is spot on: not an off-key voice in the house. In fact, quite the opposite, as each of the actors and actresses boast strong, powerful voices that clearly reflect exceptional talent.

Compass Rose Theater is a great addition to the Maryland theater scene. I have no doubt that this theater will continue to expand and attract the right talent, while simultaneously providing a launching pad to outstanding theatrical careers on some of the world's greatest stages. (read less)

'Oliver!' is a rewarding production
May 26, 2012 - Capital Gazette

Artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne is careful to separate the Compass Rose Theater from the theater’s children-oriented workshops and classes. It is not children’s theater. This production of “Oliver!” makes that point. It is dominated by the adult characters, particularly the nastier ones, and deeds most foul are committed.

This is a trim, even lean, presentation of “Oliver!” a 50-year-old chestnut with a long history of revisions, makeovers and mostly successful revivals. It can be lavish, as in its 1994 London revival, or spare, as any small theater company that has staged it, and most have, can attest. But a familiar story well told is the stuff of full houses and Thursday night comedy television. Well told here, this play concludes the season at Compass Rose Theater’s Eastport facility. (read more)

Merry-Browne’s version clocks in at just two hours with intermission — there is no wind in this production. But that keeps the evening lively and welcoming for younger theater patrons, of which there were many at this Thursday performance. If it means some plotlines are omitted and some actions abbreviated, most people know the storyline coming in.

It is, of course, based on Charles Dickens’ classic “Oliver Twist,” so we know there will be a battle between good and evil. And we are fairly sure we know how it’s going to turn out. Ah, but the familiar journey in this production is delightful. Pretty women, powerful men, some good, some very bad, with charming street urchins opening the show. Innocents done wrong, familial love, misplaced loyalty, broad humor, base lust, violence and murder are thrown in the story.

Overlay all that with a heavy handed social message about mid-19th century England, the abuse of children and the gap between the middle classes and the abject poverty of millions of their fellow Brits and you have boilerplate Dickens. You also get this classic musical written by Lionel Bart. He had his own hard luck story, but that’s for another time.

With nine-year Sarah Grace Clifton as Oliver threading her way through this thicket, the story of a golden-hearted orphan boy searching for a home unfolds. A rousing early set introduces Mr. Bumble (Toby Hessenauer), the Widow Corney (Michelle Hill) and a winning ensemble of orphans (Aubrey Heyl, Donovan Heyl, Stephen Scholl and Tad Clifton). It includes boisterous performances of “Food, Glorious Food,” “Oliver” “I Shall Scream” and “Boy for Sale.”

Oliver is part of that ensemble, but he gets himself in hock, literally, when he asks for more food. The enraged work house manager, Bumble, and the Widow Corney who cooks there, sell Oliver to an undertaker. Oliver stiffs the man and flees London, only to be found by the pickpocket Artful Dodger.

With the arrival of A.D., played charmingly by Corey Buller, and Daniel Siefring’s master pickpocket Fagin, the play kicks into gear. Strong and entertaining renditions of “Consider Yourself” and “Pick a Pocket or Two” by each actor respectively follow. Oliver’s integration into the world of picking pockets is short lived, but it moves the story along, introducing us to Mr. Brownlow (Danny Brooks), his ultimate savior.

More impressively, the scenes serve to remind audiences of Siefring’s powerful acting skills, showcased earlier this season in the comedy “Lost in Yonkers.” Big and dark and greasy, his Fagin dominates the stage playing as slick and menacing a corruptor of youth as you can pull off with children present.

Here, too, the dynamic of “Oliver!” shifts to a triangle of sorts with the entrance of two characters, one hopelessly in love with the other. The other, simply hopeless. They are Nancy (Molly Densmore), a Fagin-trained partner in crime, and her lover, Fagin crony Bill Sykes (Andre Softeland), the epitome of a bad, bad guy. Softeland’s Sykes is as strong, powerful and angry a character as has marched around an Annapolis stage. Indeed, Compass Rose Theater’s tiny stage can hardly contain him when he sings “My Name.”

Densmore inhabits the role of Nancy, dark and beautiful, morally flawed and much too loyal to Sykes, despite her growing affection for Oliver. The chemistry between his Sykes and Densmore’s Nancy could be an entire third act (or a remake of “Sid and Nancy”) and redeem the bawdiness of what we saw with Bumble and the Widow Corney in the first act.

At the center of their life is crime, and if Oliver were just another kid trying make a living in a harsh world, once they discover he might have some middle class resources in his past, he becomes a most valuable addition to their addled lives. But that’s just as Nancy’s growing affection for this surrogate son all but outsizes Bill’s need for a criminal deed.

Both Nancy and Bill pay heavy tolls for their actions. And while not here, but in the novel, Fagin ends up swinging from the end of a noose. Before he goes, however, Siefring gives us “Reviewing the Situation,” a tune that serves to effectively redeem his Fagin, if only for moment.

As for Oliver, well, you know it all works out, at least for him. The fates of the other orphans remain unexamined. The long tradition of making popular entertainment of an otherwise grim tale with a gilded ending is skillfully continued in this rewarding production. (read less)

Small-theater performance of 'Oliver' is a winner in Annapolis
May 5, 2012 - Baltimore Sun

Compass Rose Theater will complete a successful inaugural season this spring, capped by Lionel Bart's classic musical "Oliver."

Based on Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist," the story of an impoverished orphan sold to an undertaker before escaping to join a gang of pickpockets, Bart's musical adaptation premiered in London in 1960. It ran for a record-setting 12 years and created several beloved standards including "Consider Yourself," "Where is Love?" and "As Long as He Needs Me."

(read more)

Bart strips down Dickens' tale to essentials in his musical, which is appropriately shrunk further by Compass Rose director Lucinda Merry-Browne to fit her intimate theater space. Merry-Browne smartly reduces cast size to fewer orphans, eliminates some minor characters and has some actors play two roles. This also helps tighten the action.

Unconcerned about gender or stretch in dual roles, Merry-Browne has chosen a superb cast of professional and budding actors to bring a fresh vision to this sometimes dark musical. Black walls form a stark background for simple sets that are quickly moved into place to create nearly instant scene changes that add to the overall professionalism of this 15-character production.

Compass Rose is a nonprofit teaching theater company with more than 300 students enrolled at several county venues. This encourages student actors to join professionals and creates an air of spontaneity.

Contributing to this production's success is musical director Anita O'Connor, who has built a harmonious chorus of orphans and thieves to display the actors' rich vocal talents. In ensemble and solo, the members of the cast bring freshness to the familiar score. At every performance, O'Connor's musical design is executed by piano accompanists Erika Knepp and Laura Brady.

Also noteworthy are the contributions of lighting designer Paul Webster II and costume designers Julie Bays and Meaghan O'Beirne.

The cast features a skilled ensemble of five orphans and thieves played by two girls and three boys, none older than age 9: Natalya Jimenez, Aubrey Heyl, Donovan Heyl, Stephen Scholl, and Tad Clifton, who open the show with "Food, Glorious Food," joined by an enchanting Oliver, played by Sarah Grace Clifton. On opening night, this young ensemble delivered instantly engaging performances, with 8 year-old Natalya Jimenez a standout in her warm welcome.

At age 9, Sarah Clifton, a third-grader at St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis, is well along in becoming a triple-threat actor, singer and dancer. Her Oliver bravely confronts those who question his dead mother's honor to scrap convincingly with adult males, delivering every song with feeling, from a touching "Where is Love?" to a bright duet with the Artful Dodger in "Consider Yourself" and a rousing "I'd Do Anything," all with neatly executed choreography.

Transformed by Bart from Dickens' cruelly avaricious villain to a complex, colorful survivor, Fagin is given mischievous charm by charismatic Equity actor Daniel Siefring.

Never cruel, sometimes gruff, Siefring's Fagin has few illusions and is comfortably sleazy, eking out a living by training young pickpockets. Complete with nifty dance steps, Siefring comically delivers Fagin's songs, "Pick a Pocket or Two," "Be Back Soon" and most especially "Reviewing the Situation," which gains klezmer charm in Siefring's zesty delivery that laughs at the anti-Semitism once invested in this Dickens character.

Adding acting and vocal expertise is New York actress Molly Densmore, memorably debuting at Compass Rose as good-hearted streetwalker Nancy, who remains in an abusive relationship with criminal boyfriend Bill Sykes. Densmore's Nancy delivers a nuanced "It's a Fine Life," a lively music-hall number, "Oom-Pah-Pah," and a show-stopping "As Long as He Needs Me" that adds poignancy to her devotion to Sykes and telegraphs her later act of self-sacrifice.

Andre Softeland, a native of Norway with an international performing career, most recently in New York, makes his Compass Rose debut as Sykes, vigorously depicting the fearsome character while displaying a powerful operatic voice.

Corey Butler brings comic charm and enthusiasm to his role as the Artful Dodger, nimbly singing and dancing his way through "Consider Yourself" and "I'd Do Anything."

Previously behind the scenes as stage manager, Sarah Wade makes an enchanting Compass Rose on-stage debut in the multiple roles of Bet, where she displays strong vocal and dance skills, as Widow Sowerberry, where she displays her comedic skills, and as the Strawberry Seller. (read less)

Compass Rose Theater’s Oliver!
May 3, 2012 - Bay Weekly

Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist has seen a lot of action in 50 years: 10 Tony nominations and five Oscars, including 1969’s Best Picture. It’s the tale of an innocent orphan among a den of thieves in Victorian London, a story I’ve seen and performed countless times. Yet Compass Rose Theater’s production is in some ways the most memorable, the most heart-wrenching.

I was choked up from the moment the somber workhouse orphans marched onstage for their daily gruel. In a place so creepy you can almost hear the rats scurrying in the dark, they sing and dance about Food, Glorious Food in the sweetest voices imaginable, with perfect British accents. Yet Mr. Bumble (Thomas ‘Toby’ Hessenauer) is deaf to Oliver’s (Sarah Grace Clifton) lisping, “Please, sir, could I have some more?” He’s too busy flirting with Mrs. Bedwin (Michelle Hill) in the best performance I have ever seen of the often forgettable I Shall Scream. (read more)

Thus begins Oliver’s journey into the wide world — with Bumble’s haunting cry of Boy for Sale. A brief stint as a professional mourner for the shrewd Mrs. Sowerberry (Hannah Scholl) prompts him to ask Where Is Love? He runs away and meets the Artful Dodger (showman Corey Buller), who indoctrinates him into a home for wayward boys in Consider Yourself (at Home) where he meets three masters of his destiny, played by three outstanding professionals.

Fagin (Daniel Siefring), the miser who trains children to steal in exchange for room and board, is spell-binding whether in monologue, dialogue or ensemble, showboating for his orphans in such blockbusters as the Vaudevillian Pick a Pocket or Two, Be Back Soon and Reviewing the Situation. You will love watching this oily menace switch on a sixpence from fiend to friend and back again.

Nancy (Molly Densmore), the warm-hearted wench ultimately responsible for saving Oliver’s life, is lusty and loveable in It’s a Fine Life, I’d Do Anything and As Long As He Needs Me. Bill Sykes (Andre Softeland), her abusive boyfriend, will make your hair stand on end in his musical calling card, My Name.

Oliver’s fortunes turn in Act II when he is arrested on his first day “on the job” and then taken in by his intended victim, Mr. Brownlow (Danny Brooks), a sympathetic gentleman. There he finds love and joy.

This show would be perfect if it ended there. But Dickens wrote more, of course, and this production loses its energy after that.

To accommodate a tiny space, Compass Rose pared down cast and staging to bare bones. Thrift works with phenomenal effect for the most part, but the ending is so skeletal that it lacks drama despite kidnapping, murders, and vanquished evil. It is as if the play dies with Nancy. Apparently forgotten is the ending of the show’s headlining events with the requisite gawkers, mourners and hangers-on that such spectacles attract.

On a lesser note, two distracting details can and should be corrected. The accompanist is so conspicuously lit through a window she appears to be part of the action. And Sykes’ costume is so out-of-step with the rest of the cast he looks like a skinhead flasher.

Reviewing the situation, I found that this show’s tears and laughter far outweigh its yawns. I recommend it to all who love children and great musical theater. (read less)

April 30, 2012 - DC Metro Theater Arts

Compass Rose Theater’s inaugural season ends with a fabulous and intimate production of the musical Oliver! The classic musical tale of the orphan boy who wanted more is presented in all its finery with some minor adjustments made by Director Lucinda Merry-Browne. These slight tweaks give the show an intimate feeling, bringing the audience into the world of 1850 London. Merry-Browne has not cut any musical numbers or dialogue from the production but she dropped the Mr. Sowerberry character, making Mrs. Sowerberry a widow. This creates for a passionate and comic duo between Charlotte (Hannah Scholl) and Mrs. Sowerberry (Sarah Wade) for the number “That’s Your Funeral.” Merry-Browne also slashes the number of orphans appearing on stage, reducing it to just seven and that includes the Artful Dodger and Oliver. This unique decision works to the productions advantage in several ways. The show is tighter and moves more quickly, allowing for a well-paced exciting production to easily unfold without too many little bodies clogging up the stage. It also brings a sense of personal intimacy to those we do see on stage, easily focusing on the smaller number letting more of these talented youngsters showcase their voices. (read more)

The orphan ensemble (Natalya Jimenez, Aubrey Heyl, Donovan Heyl, Stephen Scholl, and Tad Clifton) is a talented group of five young ladies and gentleman with powerful voices seemingly impossible from such tiny bodies. When singing “Food, Glorious Food,” the orphan ensemble can be heard crystal clear, their dreamy voices articulating precisely what their stomach’s desire. They shine again in “Pick A Pocket Or Two” with Fagin and with Nancy in “It’s A Fine Life” Natalya Jimenez being heard above the rest in both scenes with a boisterous strong sound. They’re clad in filthy tattered rags, compliments of costume designers Julie Bays and Meaghan O’Beirne, making their scrawny figures look that much more impoverished and starved.

Director Lucinda Merry-Brown provides excellent guidance in coaxing the subtle nuances of these easily recognizable characters out of her actors to create new characters within the framework of the old ones. This is a rare delicacy in the theatre – to be able to see the same character played in a completely new light. Mr. Bumble (Thomas Hessenauer) is the prime example of taking this character in a new direction. While Hessenauer starts off with Bumble as an angry bellowing fool, we later see a much softer side of the man. A humble Bumble when he sits in the chair reflecting upon the work for his parishioners, a reproachful Bumble when reflecting upon his recent marriage, and a giddy flirtatious Bumble during his duet “I Shall Scream” with Widow Corney (Michelle Hill.)

A similar approach is used with the character of Fagin (Daniel Siefring). The natural progression of Fagin’s character has always been presented as a kindly old man with a slightly darker side than most, delving into something darker and then repenting. Siefring starts Fagin with a gruff nasty approach, making him bristly and making Oliver’s introduction very uncomfortable. Siefring manages to turn Fagin into a sleazy grotesque fellow that makes your skin quiver, his anger almost on par for what one might expect from the character of Bill Sykes. But when he sings his number “Reviewing The Situation” his puzzlement is more than apparent. He keeps an excellent pace with the many tempo changes in this number and creates a comic build with his pensive looks that evolve into hysterical madness.

Oliver (Sarah Grace Clifton) completes many of the scenes with a spunky attitude, especially when attempting to fight for his mother’s honor with Charlotte. Clifton appears as the spitting image of the scrawny underfed orphan, and has the voice of a mournful songbird when singing “Where Is Love” and joining the ensemble in “Who Will Buy?” Clifton sings and dances an adorable duet with Bet (Sarah Wade) during “I’d Do Anything” and this is matched by Nancy (Molly Densmore) and The Artful Dodger (Corey Buller.)

This pair of performers adds a little zest to the musical, Densmore in her vociferous manner with loud belted numbers like “Oom-Pah-Pah” and her more harrowing number, “As Long As He Needs Me,” a tear-jerking moving ballad of devotion to her abusive husband Bill Sykes (Andre Softeland.) Buller on the other hand provides sly comical relief as the upstanding gentlemen with false airs, providing an amusing jaunt in “Consider Yourself ,” working well with Clifton in this scene to incorporate the new orphan into Fagin’s ranks. And let’s not forget Softeland as the despicable Bill Sykes, storming the stage with a ferocious number “My Name” and scaring everyone in sight.

This powerful cast with exceptional direction provided by Merry-Browne will woo the audience into movements of sheer delight in the musical classic and if there is only one musical you see this spring season – it needs to be the Compass Rose Theater’s production of Oliver! (read less)