Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is the quintessential "rags to riches" story, but the musical version by Lionel Bart (entitled Oliver!) now at the Paper Mill Playhouse is longer on riches than rags. The production values are a veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia of energetic dancing, beautiful sets and great vocalizing, to be sure, but the clean faces and opulent costumes—most notably on the orphans and the pickpockets and thieves of London's underbelly—undercut Dickens' sharp social commentary to leave us with a pretty, if formulaic, piece of musical theater.
On the Paper Mill's ample stage, a huge cast brings to life Dickens’ tale of the orphan Oliver Twist, who escapes a sordid orphans’ workhouse and indentured servility as a coffin follower, falls in with a group of youthful cutpurses led by the villainous Fagin, and gains redemption in the house of a rich gentleman who coincidently turns out to be his grandfather! Director Mark S. Hoebee elicits superb performances out of the actors and moves a cast of 49—street vendors, workhouse boys, pickpockets and other adults—through the 12 scene changes effortlessly and smoothly. (Photo by Jerry Dalia)
Musical Supervisor and Orchestra Conductor Craig Barna leads an orchestra that accompanies the singers without overpowering them. Scenic design by Mark Morton expresses the drab squalor of London around 1850; revolving units transport us to a variety of locations, while keeping scene changes unobtrusive. Choreographer Joann M. Hunter has devised some inventive and crisp footwork for the nimble actors to execute, F. Mitchell Dana provides atmospheric lighting appropriately somber for the workhouse and London slum scenes and bright as a new penny for the scenes at the Brownlow mansion, and Randy Hansen keeps the sound crisp and intelligible albeit a bit too loud.
The actors assembled for the production are a talented group. Tyler Moran (left) may be the smallest boy in the workhouse, but his angelic face and a sweet soprano voice fills the amphitheater, especially in his heartbreaking rendition of “Where Is Love?” He matches the bigger boys step for step in “Be Back Soon” and proves an able courter of Bet in “I’d Do Anything.” His command of the stage for such a young actor is amazing. As the Artful Dodger, Ethan Haberfield (right) is self-assured, although his Cockney accent is so thick at first that he is difficult to understand. Too, he lacks the conniving manner of the pocket-sized thief and fails to smoothly execute the Dodger's endearing signature hat trick. The other workhouse boys, who double as Fagin’s gang, are appealing and talented singers and dancers, but they smile too much for children in such reduced circumstances. (Photo by Billy Bustamante)
David Garrison is wonderful as Fagin, evil and loving at the same time. While instructing the boys how to “Pick a Pocket or Two,” he cuts quite a rug, despite his supposed age. Director Hoebee has wisely eschewed the grotesque—one could say “anti-Semitic”—aspects of Fagin’s personality to make him a more sympathetic character, and we get the feeling that he really cares for his boys, although not as much as for his money and jewels. Hoebee could go even further by dropping the bit where Fagin kisses a mezuzah as he enters the cellar door. (Photo by Billy Bustamante)
The lovely Nancy is played by Betsy Morgan, who has a lovely voice and great stage presence. However, her version of the poignant ballad, “As Long as He Needs Me,” falls flat because she belts out the song instead of acting the lyrics, so that we fail to feel her anguish and ambivalence about loving such a bad ‘un as the thuggish Bill Sykes, played by Jose Llana with brooding malevolence. (Photo by Billy Bustamante)
Comic relief is supplied by John Treacy Egan as the smarmy workhouse director Bumble and a spirited Jessica Sheridan as his partner in crime—and eventual wife—the Widow Corney. The two character actors have great fun chewing up the scenery and bring down the figurative house in the courting scene (“I Shall Scream”). Michael DiLiberto and Dierdre Friel are equally as fine as the disreputable funeral directors, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, who purchase Oliver from Mr. Bumble for five pounds. With a shrieky voice that could shatter glass, Friel is especially funny as the harridan of a wife who continually browbeats her wimpy husband. David Hess is an elegant and refined Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s savior.
But it is true that the Devil is in the details. While Amanda Seymour has designed a huge number of costumes for this large cast, Nancy and Bet's dresses could be a tad more tattered and torn to reflect their down-at-heels state, and the two women and the urchins could have worn dirtier make-up to heighten the effect. As it is, they all look a bit too scrubbed to convince us they are living on the dirty streets of Victorian London.
Oliver Twist, Dickens’ second novel, appeared in installments during 1837–1839 and was intended to highlight the effects of industrialization in 19th century England; it was the first British novel to feature a child as the protagonist. Lionel Bart’s Oliver! was the first musical version of a Dickens’ novel to become a stage hit; premiering in the United States in 1962, it was nominated for 10 Tonys and won three. Because Bart simplified the plot and made many of the evil characters more comic than venal, and emphasized the comedic aspects over the tragic and somber ones, the play is appropriate for all ages.
The Paper Mill Playhouse has given us a handsome, entertaining production. Attending a performance of Oliver! can be a valuable experience for all family members, including children seven and up. The play can be a springboard to discuss such matters as spousal abuse and the involvement of children in criminal acts. All this, combined with a wonderful score, hummable melodies and colorful spectacle, explains why an exclamation point is included in the play’s title.
Oliver! will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through December 29. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.PaperMill.org online.