New Rep's "Oliver!": Feud, Glorious Feud

Ben Choi-Harris & Andy Papas in "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As bemoaned by this critic in the past, the stage musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is infrequently produced these days, in large part because of the challenge of casting very young lead actors. After all, the well-known story from Dickens' 1850 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 those two lead roles that are essential to the tale. When the London stage production debuted in 1960 and two years later on Broadway (winning three Tony Awards including Best Musical), then in a filmed version (winning an Academy Award for Best Picture), the success of all these versions depended heavily on the charisma of the actors portraying the characters of Oliver and the Artful Dodger. New Rep in Watertown has managed to rediscover a gem named Ben Choi-Harris (Oliver); but not with some questionable nontraditional casting of a female, Sydney Johnston (The Artful Dodger), who looked and acted as feminine as they come. But Choi-Harris and his impeccable Director/Choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt provided the foundation for a production that can only be described as perfect holiday fare, surely deserving of the exclamatory title, Oliver!. Bobbitt knows how to stage a crowd, as well as inventing a lot of visual movement. He's a true find for future musicals to come from New Rep.

Cast of "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Any version of this show (which notoriously has a very slow start) requires versatile singing, dancing and acting performers, such as the role of the conniving yet captivating “receiver” Fagin (Austin Pendleton), who seemed miscast, though he's been a favorite of this critic since 1964's Broadway Fiddler on the Roof  and 1970's off-Broadway Last Sweet Days of Isaac; but it needs even more a heartbreaking Nancy (Daisy Layman), which it has, as she belts out the show's best rousing songs as well as a thrilling torch song or two, as well as the inherently and unredeemably evil Bill Sikes (Rashed Alnuaimi), the hilariously hypocritical workhouse owners, Mr. Bumble (Andy Papas) and Widow Corney (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), and the equally hypocritical and aptly-named funeral director's wife Mrs. Sowerberry (Shannon Lee Jones). They are, individually as well as collectively, about as professionally perfect as one could hope for, and that includes the entire ensemble, such as Noah Claypool (Jackson Jirard), Bet (Daniela Delahuerta) and the housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin (Jones again). Rarely has one encountered such a capable Oliver as Choi-Harris (often played by actors outside their range). But wait, there's more.

Ian Freedson Falck. Austin Pendleton, Jane Jakubowski & Mark Johnson in "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

That professional level goes for the creative team as well, especially with regard to the work of Director-Choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt (the company's new Artistic Director). Along with the stupendous Scenic Design by Luciana Stecconi and wondrous Costume Design (except for Nancy's bizarre outfit and Cruella de Ville hairstyle) by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, terrific Lighting Design by Frank Meissner and effective Sound Design by Kevin L. Alexander, there is the marvelous Musical Direction by Sariva Goetz, 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), even though he couldn't write or read a single musical note. Not only was Bart true to Dickensian themes, his work was respected here by Bobbitt with this tight rendition, with great attention to the score and some witty references to the works of Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey. In Bobbitt's hands, these kids are wonderful, with a real standout performance by Jane Jakubowski.

Daisy Layman & The Cast of "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

And oh, that score! From the show's opener, “Food, Glorious Food” 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 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. The only pity is that the second act includes no fewer than five reprises out of its ten numbers. For the most part the musical numbers are a treat, from the title song to “It's a Fine Life”, “I'd Do Anything”, “Be Back Soon”, and “Who Will Buy?”, apart from some that are needed just to advance the story, such as “I Shall Scream”, “Boy for Sale”, “That's Your Funeral”, and “My Name”. Just consider, yourself, Nancy's pub number, "Oom-Pah-Pah" (this critic's favorite) with its typical (and innocently highly suggestive) lyrics.

The Cast of "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As is equally true in Dickens' seminal source, everything about a successful Oliver! demonstrates precisely how character-driven this work is at every level. It is wisely presented as a dark musical “comedy” meant to entertain. Storytelling in theater simply doesn't get any better than this. Period. Full stop. And do by all means make a full stop at New Rep 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 nearly Broadway caliber. So review your situation and find time for this perfect choice for holiday theater.

See it even if you've got to pick a pocket or two to do so, through December 29th.

No comments:

Post a Comment