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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Story Theatre Style Oliver Twist For The Entire Family

Also see Bob's reviews of Topdog/Underdog and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike


Eric Hoffmann and (rear) Quentin McCuiston
Neil Bartlett's 2004 London kaleidoscopic stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is currently receiving its New Jersey premiere in a handsome, large scale production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Madison.

With a few exceptions, the script derives entirely from the text of the Dickens novel. The form is that of story theatre, a style that combines storytelling with acted-out scenes. The narrative that links the various scenes or episodes together is largely spoken by the Artful Dodger, although the other cast members supply narration either singly or en masse, sometimes singing it a cappella. As such, this Oliver Twist is lively and engrossing family entertainment suitable tor sophisticated children, which should lead many young viewers to read the Dickens novel for themselves.

Bartlett has intentionally kept his dramatization brief (it runs 2 hours and ten minutes with one intermission) while encapsulating most of the principal events, beginning with the death of Oliver's mother in childbirth through the dire fate of Fagin. The dire fates of a number of the denizens of Oliver Twist, several of which were evaded in film versions and the Lionel Bart musical version, have been restored. The tone is that of extravagant, old fashioned, rousing melodrama punctuated by broad comedy scenes, such as those featuring the workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble (and Mrs. Bumble); and those with Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, the undertaker and his wife with the latter played in broad caricature by Jeffery M. Bender. Bartlett describes his play as "Adapted in Twenty Four Scenes with Several Songs and Tableaux".

The story begins thusly:

Dodger and ensemble variously: On a day and date which we need not take upon ourselves to repeat, since it can be of no possible consequence—there was born the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to tonight's story. He was born in a workhouse. For some time after he was ushered into this world—this world of sorrow and trouble—it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all In which case this memoir need never have appeared—or if it had, it would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of dramatic biography extant—However After a few seconds after a few struggles the child breathed. If he'd known that he was an orphan, perhaps he would have cried even louder.

Doctor: It's all over, Mrs. Thingummy.

Mrs. Corney: Ah, poor dear, so it is. Poor dear.

Doctor: A good looking girl, too.

Mrs. Corney: Found lying in the street

Dodger: Where she came from or where she was going to, nobody knew.

Doctor:The old story. No wedding ring I see. (Aaah!) It's very likely the child will be troublesome. Give it gruel if it is.

Mrs. Corney: Yes, Doctor.

Despite Neil Bartlett's determination not to bowdlerize Oliver Twist and remain faithful to Dickens, the adaptation feels like a study guide summary which skims through the novel with little in the way of depth or resonance. (Its significant softening of the novel notwithstanding, there is more resonance and depth of storytelling in the musical, Oliver! than there is here.)

Ames Adamson brings some humanity to the major role of the viciously self-protective and amoral Fagin. Despite Bartlett's insistence that Fagin be portrayed as Jewish (something to do with showing "the vicious rage of someone who lives excluded from society"), director Brian B. Crowe wisely has Adamson play Fagin simply as an Englishman. That is until the end when Fagin, facing execution, recites a bit of the Hebrew Mourner's Prayer. There is a more appropriate prayer for a Jew confronting death, but this Fagin is not so much a Jew in any event. Given the Oliver Twist-light nature of the adaptation, his religion seems a facet that would have best been left unexplored.

The entire cast contributes strongly to this well acted, lively ensemble production. Jeffrey M. Bender adds a contrasting and appropriately scary Bill Sykes to his Mrs. Sowerberry. Tina Stafford is a most entertaining beadle's wife, which is in nice contrast to her other role as witness at Oliver's hearing. Although our Oliver doesn't get much to say, Quentin McCuiston nicely suggests the pre-teen age Oliver. Corey Tazmania brings the most emotion here, portraying the poignant Nancy. Eric Hoffman is a most amusing Mr. Bumble. Andrew Boyer is strong in three very wide ranging and entertaining roles: Mr. Sowerberry, Mr. Grimwig and Judge Fang. Robbie Collier Sublett narrates effectively as the Artful Dodger. John Little and Meg Kiley Smith bring charm to their respective roles, the benevolent Brownlow and his daughter Rose. Andy Paterson, George Abud and David Andrew Laws effectively add to their talents to the cohesive ensemble performance.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday and Wednesday (no performance 10/3) and Sunday 7:30 pm/ Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) through October 7, 2012, at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist Adapted by Neil Bartlett, directed by Brian B. Crowe

Cast

The Workhouse
Mrs. Corney, Matron of the Workhouse…………………Tina Stafford
A Doctor……………………………………………….......Ames Adamson
Mr. Bumble, a parish beadle…………………………. …Eric Hoffmann
Oliver Twist, a poor orphan boy…………………..Quentin McCuiston
Chairman of the Workhouse Board………………………….John Little

The Undertakers
Mr. Sowerberry, a parochial undertaker………………Andrew Boyer
Mrs. Sowerberry, his wife; sour, vixenish…………Jeffrey M. Bender
Charlotte, servant to Mrs. Sowerberry……………….Meg Kiley Smith
Noah Claypole, apprentice to Sowerberry…….. ..David Andrew Laws
David Andrew Laws

The Streets of London
John Dawkins, Artful Dodger, pickpocket…….Robbie Collier Sublett
Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods……………………….Ames Adamson
Charley Bates, a thief………………………………………Andy Paterson
Tom Chitling, a pickpocket………………… ………..David Andrew Law
Toby Crackit, a housebreaker……………………………..George Abud
Nancy, thief /prostitute in Fagin's service……………Corey Tazmania
Bill Sikes, a brutal thief and housebreaker…………Jeffrey M. Bender

The Court of Law
Judge Fang, overbearing police magistrate….............Andrew Boyer
Policeman………………………………………………….Jeffrey M. Bender
The Last Minute Witness……………………………………...Tina Stafford
Guard, overseeing Fagin…………………………............Andrew Boyer

Pentonville
Mr. Brownlow, a benevolent old gentleman………………….John Little
Rose Brownlow, his daughter………………………….. Meg Kiley Smith
Mr. Grimwig, a friend to Mr. Brownlow…………………..Andrew Boyer
Servant to the Brownlows …………………………………...George Abud

Workhouse Boys and Inmates,
Members of the Board, Mourners
Gang Members, Bystanders………………………………The Ensemble


Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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