Oliver! – Review by Tom Holehan

It is hard to believe that Lionel Bart’s celebrated 1960 musical, “Oliver!”, has never trod the boards at the Goodspeed Opera House. Even harder to believe and understand is that there hasn’t been a major revival of this Tony award winner on Broadway in over 30 years. Who knows why, but be glad that the East Haddam theatre is currently offering a production of this popular classic on its jewel box stage through Labor Day and beyond. Consider yourself pretty lucky.

Based, of course, on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, the musical version of the novel owes much to the original 1948 David Lean film. Remakes and PBS presentations followed but none were ever as revered as the Lean version. The 1968 film version of the musical was an unqualified hit winning the top prize of “Best Picture” that year as well as five other Oscars. It’s interesting to note that it was that rare G-rated movie to win beating out “Funny Girl”, “Rachel, Rachel” and “The Lion in Winter” among other critically acclaimed films. It was only a year later that the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” took home the Oscar. Times change.

At Goodspeed “Oliver!” introduces its resourceful young hero (Elijah Rayman) as one of many mistreated orphans in a dire English workhouse overseen by Mr. Bumble (an ideal Richard R. Henry) and the Widow Comey (Joy Hermalyn). When Oliver eventually makes his escape, he meets the street-wise Artful Dodger (Gavin Swartz) who, in turn, introduces him to his mentor, Fagin (Donald Corren). Fagin is a father-figure-in-petty-crime who has a platoon of youngsters working the streets for him by pick-pocketing the locals. Dickens rarely sugar-coated his stories.

Directed with polish and finesse by the endlessly resourceful Rob Ruggiero, this “Oliver!” gets most things right in particular with its adult cast members. Corren is a marvelous Fagin, funny and flinty, playing the corrupt pied piper and delivering the goods on great songs like “You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation”. Swartz leads a rousing “Consider Yourself” in act one and is a terrific addition to the company, but Bart’s book basically discards the character in the second act giving him little to do. EJ Zimmerman, playing the doomed Nancy who’s in love with the evil Bill Sykes (a solid and very tall Brandon Andrus), is a powerhouse performer whose classic torch ballad, “As Long As He Needs Me”, is delivered with longing, poignancy and deep reflection. If the youngsters in the “Oliver!” company aren’t always as individual or charismatic as one would like, they still energize the production numbers with enthusiasm if not always golden tones.

The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt impresses as Dickensian-inspired, but isn’t really very adaptable when it needs to suggest other spaces and locales especially when Oliver moves into posher digs. Alejo Vietti’s costume design, however, is just so and I loved the idea of putting Bill Sykes in a flowing leather jacket with the tallest top hat she could find. The fanciful choreography by James Gray recalls the English Music Hall scene perfectly.

All told, “Oliver!” is not an easy musical to produce. But Goodspeed is offering a worthy rendering here giving audiences the opportunity to hear such gems as “Food, Glorious Food”, “Where is Love”, I’d Do Anything”, “Oom-Pah-Pah” and more all over again. Enjoy.

“Oliver!” has already been extended at Goodspeed through Thursday, September 13. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.