Review: 'Oliver!' At Goodspeed Opera House. 'More,' And Less

 The "Oliver!" orphrans. All photos by Diane Sobolewski. 

The "Oliver!" orphrans. All photos by Diane Sobolewski. 

The show: "Oliver!" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

What makes it special?:  Because of the large cast of kids -- mostly young boys -- this '60s musical by Lionel Bart doesn't get revived as much as it should. What makes it special to me is that it was one of the first musicals I saw on Broadway in the mid-'60s. 

So how does it compare? Very favorably. The score is fabulous, even if the book (also by Bart)  is a bit sketchy -- and that's being generous, The Goodspeed team, led by director Rob Ruggerio who is a master of shows with style and heart, has created a smart, sharp and beautifully designed production.

Special bows to set designer Michael Schweikardt who manages to create a multi-use London landscape that serves the works' many demands so well. Costumer Alejo Vietti also captures that well lived-in, down-and-dirty look we associate with this sooty period. Bottom line for the show's look: Charles Dickens world is brought to vivid, authentic life. (A tip here also to lighting designer John Lasiter.) 

Most of the performances are top notch and I'm sure the production as a whole will create the same memorable moments for many that I experienced as a boy, too. They don't call it the "Annie" for boys for nothing,

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What's it about?: Innocent English orphan escapes from his horrible life in a brutal workhouse during the time of Victorian England and is befriended by a gang of street youths -- led by a rascally crook named Fagin. The kids in Fagin's crib work the sidewalks of London, pickpocketing the crowds and delivering their goods back in Fagin's lair.  

Fagin is also in cahoots with the main tough of the 'hood, Bill Sykes. whose lover is Nancy, a gutsy gal who has maternal affection for Fagin's young gang, but is hopelessly bound to the thoroughly evil and abusive Sykes. Halfway through the show, Oliver is arrested but saved by a Kindly aristocrat when he learns of the lad's sad plight. But fearing the boy knows too much ---- and might tell the authorities about Fagin and Sykes' dealings -- a plot is hatched by Sykes to kidnap Oliver -- and worse. But he needs Nancy's help.

That sounds like Dickens all right: innocent youths and a brutal society: Yes, but in this version Oliver is presented as awfully spunky and instead of being the pure victim here becomes an active participant -- and young felon.  For me, it dilutes the emotionalism of the audience towards the boy, played by Elijah Rayman.

The choice to make the kid an action hero is a mistake. Here, for example, instead of drawing straws to see which boy in the orphanage will have to ask for more food, Oliver boldly, purposefully goes where no boy dares. And instead of being innocently arrested for a crime others did that he is blamed for, he participates in the deed. In the effort to empower Oliver, the character is diminished.  He is NOT Annie. He is Oliver and here the character gets twisted.

Another tilt that doesn't work for me. In the #metoo movement, it seems it's been decided we can't accept Nancy's plight for what it is and she has to be given a subtext. Fine, but this one is at  odds with the text and for her big song. she spits out "As Long As He Needs Me." But the audience already understands the corner she's in -- and is heartbroken for her. By snarling out the song she doesn't seem to trust the audience to get the fact that she's stuck and can't help herself.. The poignance and the beauty of the song is us understanding this sad delusion. It's a pity because I otherwise loved EJ Zimmerman's performance, giving the underwritten role heart, fun and some great vocal chops -- which she wonderfully demonstrates in "It's a Fine Life," and "I'll Do Anything." 

If this revival wanted to tinker, it could have taken a few steals from the much smarter Film version, adding narrative drive to the  "Oom-Pah-Pah" number and making the final curtain a two-fer.

But aside from these reservations, the show is still rich and rewarding and rarely has there been so many back-to-back killer numbers than the second half of the first act, all performed grandly  and cleverly choreographed with fun and flair by James Gray.  Donald Corren makes a fine Fagin but he absolutely soars in his big second act number, "Reviewing the Situation," a mini-play unto itself and he gives a master class in musical comedy performance.

Brandon Andrew is indeed "a villain in his prime," and shows that you evokes fear ion small ways as well as large. Richard R. Henry gives yet another grand character performance as Mr. Bumble; Joy Hermalyn is delightful wicked as Widow Corney; Jamie LaVerdiere as Mr. Sowerberry (doncha love these Dickens names?) and Karen Murphy also has a face that is pure Dickens, too, as his  Mrs. (and as kindly Mrs. Bedwin). Owen Tabaka manages to standout from the boys with flair and Gavin Schwartz gives The Artful Dodger a splendid singing voice.  

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Who will like it?  Fans of the musical nd movie musical -- and its glorious score that includes
"Where Its Love?" "Food Glorious Food," "Who Will Buy?" "Consider Yourself," "I'll Do Anything" and "As Long As He Needs Me."

Who won't?: There may be some Dickens fans who may be unhappy with the editing and some of the interpretations.

For the kids?: You bet, especially young boys who will identify with a kids in the show. 

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Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Despite a few twists of its own, 'Olive!"' remains a musical pleasure --  and treasure.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Nearly three weeks of "previews" before the critics are allowed in for a show that is nearly 60 years old? Really? C'mon. Audiences paying full price deserve reviews and then judge for themselves. But then again the theater couldn't get nearly an extra month's rehearsal out of the cast. The policy is outrageous. 

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The basics: The show has been extend through Sept. 13 with new performances added on Sept. 11 to 13 at 2 and 7:30. Info at goodspeed.org and 860-873-8668. 

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One more thing: 

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