Goodspeed's "Oliver!": Feud, Glorious Feud!

Gavin Swartz (The Artful Dodger) & Elijah Rayman (Oliver) in "Oliver!"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The stage musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is infrequently produced these days, in large part because of the challenge of casting young actors. After all, the well-known story from Dickens' original novel features two different British social worlds engaged in feuding against one another for the life and soul of the titular orphan and involves a good number of workhouse young boys with two lead roles that are essential to the tale. When the London stage production debuted in 1960 in London, and two years later on Broadway, then in an Oscar-winning filmed version, the success of all these versions depended heavily on the charisma of the actors portraying the characters of Oliver and the Artful Dodger. Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut has miraculously managed to discover two gems, namely Elijah Rayman (Oliver) and Gavin Swartz (the Artful Dodger), who together provide the foundation for a production that can only be described as virtually flawless, it surely deserves the exclamatory title, Oliver!.

Gavin Swartz (The Artful Dodger) & EJ Zimmerman (Nancy) & Cast in "Oliver!"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

As crucial as these two actors are, any version of this musical further requires versatile singing, dancing and acting performers in the roles of the conniving yet captivating “receiver” Fagin (Donald Corren), the heartbreaking Nancy (EJ Zimmerman) who can belt the show's best rousing songs as well as a thrilling torch song or two, the inherently and unredeemably evil Bill Sikes (Brandon Andrus), and the hilariously hypocritical workhouse owners, the Bumbles (Richard R. Henry and Joy Hermalyn). They are, individually as well as collectively, about as professionally perfect as one could hope for, and that includes the entire ensemble. Rarely has one encountered such a capable Oliver as Rayman (often played by actors outside their range) or a more mesmerizing Artful Dodger as Swartz (arguably the show's best-written and here best-performed role). One can only marvel at how the company found all these pros. But wait, there's more.

Elijah Rayman (Oliver) & Richard Henry (Mr. Bumble) in "Oliver!"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

That professional level goes for the creative team as well, especially with regard to the work of Director Rob Ruggiero (in his eleventh season with Goodspeed), who so impressed in the past with such productions as Rags, Fiddler on the Roof, La Cage aux Folles and The Most Happy Fella; there simply is no one on the planet so imaginative and focused as a musical stage helmer. Along with the stupendous Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt and wondrous Costume Design by Alejo Vietti, terrific Lighting Design by John Lasiter and effective Sound Design by Jay Hilton, there is the marvelous Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty, fluid Choreography by James Gray and, at the core of the work, the triple threat contribution by the musical's creator Lionel Bart, who wrote the Book, Music and Lyrics (a feat perhaps only Frank Loessor or Meredith Wilson could so perfectly match). Not only was Bart true to Dickensian themes, his work was respected by Ruggiero with this tight rendition, with a helpful mimed visual to start the show, and the sight of a determined Fagin to end it, as opposed to the medley of reprised songs usually provided.

Donald Corren as Fagin in "Oliver!'
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

And oh, that score!  From the show's opener, Food, Glorious Food (with this production's sole flaw, the need for better ensemble diction) to Oliver's poignant plea Where Is Love? to Dodger's show-stopping Consider Yourself, to Nancy's As Long As He Needs Me and Oom-Pah-Pah, and Fagin's “eleven o'clock number”, Reviewing the Situation, it's chock full of unforgettable musical pieces. The score's sources range from the traditional British music hall to complex counterpoint sung a cappella, every song character-driven. Even Nancy's fate (with its abusive aspects) is here tempered by her strength and redeeming choices in the end.

As is equally true in Dickens' seminal source, everything about a successful Oliver! demonstrates precisely how character-driven this work is at every level. Storytelling in theater simply doesn't get any better than this. Period. Full stop. And do by all means make a full stop at Goodspeed Musicals (already extended through September 13th) for this quintessential example of musical theater at its best, and, in the tradition of past exclamation-pointed shows (think Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly! and the like) it's totally Broadway-ready.

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