Paper Mill Oliver!: A Bright, Shiny Bauble
Also see Bob's review of Clever Little Lies
Lionel Bart (book, music and lyrics) sanitized much of Dickens' dark and disturbing novel of poverty and social injustice, as well as all of Dickens' own prejudice in its depiction of villain Fagin, while retaining crucial portions of the novel's compelling melodramatic plot which could be disturbing to younger, faint-at-heart children and their families. However, director Mark Hoebee has given short shrift to Oliver!'s depictions of jeopardy, mayhem and murder in order to insure that they will not disturb younger audiences, thus securing his Oliver!'s place as a most suitable entertainment for a Christmas season matinee. Thus, it is appropriate and pleasing when the production is topped off with a joyful holiday carol. While this will not be to everyone's taste, it would be folly to think for even a moment that Artistic Director Hoebee does not know his audience and how to maximize its pleasure.
David Garrison performs the role of Fagin as the loveable old codger into whom author Bart has turned him. For the most part, Garrison employs a light Cockney accent. However, Fagin's ethnicity is only perceptible in the Bart melodies and their arrangements, most compellingly by way of a gorgeous violin solo section of "Reviewing the Situation." The poignancy of Fagin's situation is muted by the absence of this song's final verses.
Betsy Morgan is a vocally top notch Nancy. Her lush and powerful, precisely on-key interpretation of "As Long as He Needs Me" makes it clear that today's power ballads have nothing on this classic forerunner. Jose Llana pulls out all the stops to make sure that Bill Sikes is as vicious a villain as he assures us in his signature song, "My Name." Truth to tell, Oliver! gives us no indication that the lug needs Nancy at all
In the production's best performance, John Treacy Egan delivers a robust, vocally glorious, comically on target portrayal of the Beadle (minor local official in charge) of the orphanage-workhouse where Oliver was born and in which he is still living at the age of 10 as the musical begins. His vocalizations of the title song, "Boy for Sale," and (with the able collaboration of Jessica Sheridan as the widow Corney) "I Shall Scream" are simply superb.
Tyler Moran hits all his marks as the most angelic looking Oliver Twist that one could ever see and he is ably supported by Ethan Haberfield as his mentor in thievery Jack Dawkins aka "The Artful Dodger."
The final scene of the first act which brings us through Oliver's arrival at Fagin's den after running away from the Beadle, his tutoring in thievery, and his embarking on his first criminal foray onto the streets of London brings us the rare pleasure of a back to back quartet of fully integrated delightful and rousing songs ("Pick a Pocket or Two," It's a Fine Life," "I'd Do Anything" and "Be Back Soon") which are delivered with gusto by Fagin, Oliver, Dodger, Nancy, her friend Bet (Kristen Smith Davis), and Fagin's gang. The energetic, emphatic choreography provided by Joann M. Hunter is reminiscent of both Mary Poppins (replete with brooms and chimney soot) and Newsies.
To all intents and purposes, the turntable set by Mark Morton is a lighter, more airy adaptation of the most impressive, but unnecessarily oppressive, dark and massive original three-turntable design by Sean Kenney. A pretty curtain bearing a "painting" of the streets of early 19th century London frames the production. The bright, colorful traditional costumes are the work of Amanda Seymour.
If I have counted (the names in my program) correctly, there is a cast of 49, including fourteen local youngsters playing workhouse boys in the opening scene. They are augmented by other actors who also play other roles, these most often being the members of Fagin's gang. The actors playing the workhouse boys (particularly when singing "Food, Glorious Food") are directed to perform in an emphatic, broadly comic manner. However, one of the augmenting actors mugged so intently on opening night that he undermined the effectiveness of the scene.
The original 1960 London production of Oliver! ran for 2,618 performances. It arrived on Broadway in 1963, where it repeated its London success, sustaining a run of 774 performances. The 1968 screen adaptation won six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Subsequently, it has had several revivals both on Broadway and in the West End. Now, New Jersey's family friendly, brisk revival of Oliver! is providing two hours of lively, quality entertainment for the holiday season. Please make note that it will only be on stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse through December 29th.
Oliver! continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday - Sunday 7 pm - except Wednesday 12/25 / Matinees: Thursday, Saturday & Sunday - & Tuesday 12/24 only - 1:30 pm) through December 29, 2013 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, New Jersey. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Oliver! Book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart/ directed by Mark Hoebee
Additional Ensemble.....Monica Bradley, Stephen
Mitchell Brown, Mary Claire King
Additional Workhouse Boys..............Bobby Axelrod,
Luke Berninger, Jake Cedar,