From the director who even made “Camelot” palatable comes an outstanding “Oliver” at Goodspeed Musicals. Working with strong material, Rob Ruggiero beefs up the drama of, and adds sensuality to, Charles Dickens’ tale of degradation and redemption. While Ruggiero can’t bypass librettist/composer/lyricist Lionel Bart’s softening and jollying of the original “Oliver Twist” he does his damnedest to raise the stakes.
He’s abetted by a cast of dedicated performers, none more expert than EJ Zimmerman as the good-hearted, ill-treated Nancy. By the time Zimmerman gets to “As Long As He Needs Me” in the second act, we’re already on her side. Magically, as she sings that hymn to undying love, we race to keep up with her self-immolation. Devotion vies with doubt, and we’re transported to a world where some people, despite misgivings, cannot extricate themselves from perilous, stressful situations. Even as she’s physically abused by lover Bill Sikes, when she raises her powerful voice and portrays her sense of entrapment, pain becomes pleasure. Like many Dickens’ characters, contradictions are in her very nature and attitude.
Basing his novel on deplorable conditions of his time – workhouses, poverty, crime, the clash of classes – Dickens, ever the humanist, created characters noble and despicable. Noble is Oliver (an appealing Elijah Rayman), the orphaned boy condemned to a workhouse; he’s all sweetness and light, too innocent not to get caught trying to please. Despicable is the cudgel-wielding Bill Sikes (a powerful Brandon Andrus) who subjugates via threats and bullying.
Father-figure Fagin, the miserly but intermittingly caring doyen of a ragtag group of youthful thieves, offers shelter and guidance, including “how to pick a pocket or two.” Also caught in the crossfire is Nancy, Bill’s girlfriend, who tries to protect Oliver from Sikes’ cruel intentions. That good eventually triumphs is as much wish as fact.
Despite its darker elements, Bart’s libretto glosses over many of the more sleazy aspects of the tale that the 1968 Oscar-winning film attacked. Following the concept, Donald Corren’s Fagin is not the fiendish character so memorably portrayed by Alec Guinness in the non-musical 1948 movie. In Bart’s version, the kids are not mistreated and seem to be having a festive time. Take the charming, scheming Artful Dodger who is, in Gavin Swartz’s capable hands, more the former than the latter.
When Ruggiero gets to his more purely evil characters, he hits the spot. Andrus’ Sikes is truly menacing, his tall height adding to his dangerousness. (At the performance caught, his realistic comeuppance caused one young customer to scream bloody murder.) Karen Murphy is wonderful doubling as the contemptuous Mrs. Sowberry and empathetic Mrs. Bedwin, while Richard R. Henry’s Mr. Bumble is terrifically sung and acted.
James Gray’s choreography is lively, although “Oom-PahPah” might have been better integrated into the action. But the score, under conductor Michael O’Flaherty is beautifully sung, its harmonies thrilling.
Michael Schweikardt’s unit setting, though evocative, crowds the Goodspeed stage. Yet, along with John Lasiter’s moody lighting, Alejo Vietti’s swirling costumes and Jay Hilton’s symmetric sound design, the set creates an atmosphere of doom.
The brilliant score (“Food, Glorious Food,” “Where is Love,” “Consider Yourself, “ “Reviewing the Situation”) is reason enough to attend. But the final credit is Ruggiero’s. From colorful crowd scenes to one-on-one dialogues, the director wields a firm hand. Rehearsed to a fare-thee-well, this “Oliver” is a superb argument for reviving a show filled with such pathos and excitement.