Monday, July 30, 2018

Review of "Oliver!"

Oliver! Is that musical where you know most of the songs, even if you don’t know you know them.  This makes the show, with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, a perfect Goodspeed style presentation.  Surprisingly, there has never been a production of Oliver!at the East Haddam theater.  [Trivia Note: selections from Oliver! were performed on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night The Beatles made their American debut on the television show.]

“Food, Glorious Food” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oliver!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 13.  Photo Credit © Photo By: Diane Sobolewski

The story is based on Charles Dickens classic, Oliver Twist.  It’s a time where orphaned children were warehoused and poorly treated in squalid workhouses.  Michael Schweikardt’s set, consisting of an elevated steel catwalk with metal stairs descending to the minimally designed stage, gives a dark tonal quality to the show as well as an impression of early 19th century London. 

We are introduced to Oliver and his fellow youthful denizens, all overseen by the cruel and apathetic Mr. Bumble and Widow Comey, as they somberly, and rhythmically, march down for their daily portion of gruel. Oliver’s impudence  - “Please sir, I want some more” – sets off a chain of events where he is sold off to be apprenticed with an undertaker, escapes and travels to London, and is befriended by the Artful Dodger, the pre-teen leader of a gang of youthful pickpockets.  The ringleader, an aged criminal named Fagin, welcomes the fresh recruit and introduces him to the ways of his new world.  Mixed in with the group are two former members, Nancy, a tough, but tenderhearted young woman and Bill Sikes, a twenty-something thug.  Circumstances quickly change for Oliver as he is nabbed by the police on his initial outing.  This leads to a drastic change in his destiny as well as the fortunes of all others.
“Consider Yourself, one of the family” Gavin Swartz (The Artful Dodger) and Elijah Rayman (Oliver Twist) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Oliver!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 13.  Photo Credit © Photo By: Diane Sobolewski

Lionel Bart’s score offers a dizzying array of well-known numbers that have such diverse influences as the English Music Hall and traditional Broadway melodies.  They are tuneful, full of life, and will have you humming as you leave the theater.  They include the opening “Food, Glorious Food,” “Where is Love?,” “It’s a Fine Life,” and “As Long as He Needs Me.”

James Gray’s choreography is used sparingly in the show but when utilized provides a welcome Oom-Pah-Pah to the production.

“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oliver!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 13 Photo Credit © Photo By: Diane Sobolewski

The cast is superb led by the outstanding performance of Donald Corren as Fagin.  He fits the role perfectly.  He is a mischievous rascal, more comic foil then villainous scoundrel.  He delivers his two signature numbers, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and, especially, “Reviewing the Situation” with showmanship and panache.  Elihah Rayman’s portrayal of Oliver seemed forced and slightly tentative, at first.  But, as an orphan, this would be his natural inclination.  As the show progressed he became more assured and natural in the role.  His innocence becomes a beacon of hope and optimism.  Gavin Swartz is a cocky and confident Artful Dodger.  As a boy living on the edge he does seem too clean-cut and well mannered.  His performance, though, fittingly complements the virtuousness of Oliver.   EJ Zimmerman gives Nancy a tough exterior but she also imbues the character with an inner tenderness and understanding.  The actress also possesses a powerful singing voice. Brandon Andrus is appropriately menacing as the grown rapscallion Bill Sikes.  He is a towering presence that says little, but carries a big stick with disturbing results.  Richard R. Henry and Joy Hermalyn as, respectively, Mr. Bumble and Widow Comey, provide strong support and a fine comedic touch to the production.
“Oom-Pah-Pah” EJ Zimmerman (Nancy) with Megan Loomis, Jamie LaVerdiere, Andrew Mayer and Karen Murphy in Goodspeed Musicals’ Oliver!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 13.  Photo Credit © Photo By: Diane Sobolewski

Director Rob Ruggiero has a firm hand on the musical whether it’s staging a large-scale, boisterous production number or delivering a lighter touch on the more tender moments.  He effectively starts off the show with a bleaker outlook that parallels the Dicken’s novel before methodically changing course with a more uplifting and enriching ambiance.  Scenes flow smoothly into one another, giving the musical a satisfying pacing.  He also deserves praise for corralling the young performers into a cohesive, workable ensemble.

Oliver!, a golden opportunity to see this rousing, rarely performed classic.  At the Goodspeed Opera House through September 13th.

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