BWW Review: New Rep's OLIVER!: Singing and Dancing Orphans, But No Dog
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Lionel Bart, Directed & Choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt, Music Direction by Sariva Goetz; Scenic Designer, Luciana Stecconi; Costume Designer, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Designer, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Designer, Kevin L. Alexander; Production Stage Manager, Brian M. Robillard; Assistant Stage Manager, Caleb Spivey
CAST (in alphabetical order): Rashed Alnuaimi, Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda, Ben Choi-Harris, Noura Dean, Daniela Delahuerta, Rollanz "Rollie" Edwards, Jr., Ian Freedson Falck, Jane Jakubowski, Jackson Jirard, Mark Johnson, Sydney Johnston, Shannon Lee Jones, Daisy Layman, H.C. Lee, Luis Negrón, Andy Papas, Austin Pendleton, Michael Rodriguez, Jr.
New Repertory Theatre dusts off an old chestnut for a family-friendly, non-holiday, crowd-pleasing offering as their gift for the season. Lionel Bart's Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, is known to be a little dark, with its themes of orphans, child exploitation, and vast income inequality (sound familiar?), but in the hands of New Rep's new Artistic Director, Michael J. Bobbitt, the darkness is lightened up with jaunty performances, a smattering of silly antics, and a set design (Luciana Stecconi) that skews to the cartoonish. With almost a dozen capable adults anchoring the cast, the seven children of all ages are given free rein to behave like children, albeit amazingly talented and spirited ones.
Oliver (Ben Choi-Harris) is an orphan removed from the workhouse for daring to ask, "Please, Sir. I want some more" after the breakfast slop is consumed. He is sold to an undertaker, but runs off and is found by the Artful Dodger (Sydney Johnston), a streetwise kid who takes him home to Fagin (Austin Pendleton) and his den of thieves. They teach Oliver how to pick a pocket to earn his keep, and he meets Nancy (Daisy Layman, spirited and sympathetic), the prostitute with a heart of gold and a soft spot for the new recruit. As bad luck would have it, on his first assignment, he is wrongly accused of pilfering a wallet, but the other kids scatter and he gets scooped by the coppers. As good luck would have it, he is then placed with Mr. Brownlow (Luis Negrón), a kind, well-to-do man, and it seems like he's all set.
However, since this is Dickens, you know it won't be that easy and the bad guys - Fagin and his overlord, the nefarious Bill Sikes (Rashed Alnuaimi, magnetic and scary) - send out a search party to capture Oliver and keep their enterprise a secret. Although she is reluctant to return him to their netherworld, Nancy is the one who finds him. It sets up an existential quandary for her when she realizes she now has two loves to protect, despite the abusive treatment she receives at the hands of Sikes. I won't spoil how she resolves it, but the denouement is not without its elements of danger and excitement, and the multi-tiered set is used to good effect.
Oliver!'s cup overfloweth with singable, familiar musical numbers that roll in like the tide. For openers, there's "Food, Glorious Food," sung with brio by Oliver and the workhouse kids. One of the well-known songs might be called "Oliver's Lament," but is actually "Where Is Love?" In the first act, there are four songs in a row that you might join in on singing, or at least sing on your way out of the theater ("Consider Yourself," "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," "It's a Fine Life," and "I'd Do Anything"). The big hit in act two is Nancy's heartbreaker, "As Long As He Needs Me," beautifully rendered by Layman, and Pendleton squeezes all the humor and misgivings out of "Reviewing the Situation," when Fagin begins to consider another line of work, or any work at all.
Negrón (Mr. Sowerberry), Shannon Lee Jones (Mrs. Sowerberry/Mrs. Bedwin), Andy Papas (Mr. Bumble/Dr. Grimwig), and Daniela Delahuerta (Bet/Charlotte) are all double cast and do a wonderful job of differentiating their characters. One of the many new faces on the New Rep stage, Jackson Jirard (Noah Claypole) gives a spark to Bobbitt's choreography, displaying his ballet training, including an unexpected entrechat. (You don't see that on a musical theater stage very often.) Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda (Widow Corney) is the epitome of a Dickens character and adds some powerful vocals to the mix. Together, she and Papas bring a little light opera to their scenes. Rounding out the adult component of the ensemble are Noura Deane and H.C. Lee.
The Youth Ensemble consists of five fresh faces who all seem like they've been doing this theater thing for years. Rollanz "Rollie" Edwards, Jr., Ian Freedson Falck, Jane Jakubowski, Mark Johnson, and Michael Rodriguez, Jr. are all triple threats, acting, singing, and dancing without missing a step. Every once in awhile, I focused on one of them and was impressed with the level of engagement with the action, even if it meant just an eye roll or a facial reaction. It may be the first time any of them have been on the New Rep stage, but I doubt it will be the last.
Although he is making his New Rep debut, Choi-Harris is an old hand at a young age, having been on a National Tour and in lots of regional productions. As the title character, he carries a lot of weight on his slender shoulders, but he sings like an angel and makes it all look easy. He has good chemistry with his gang, but the Artful Dodger is not just a pickpocket. As embodied by Johnston, she is a scene stealer and totally commands the stage whenever her character is featured. She comes across as a natural performer with an abundance of confidence. This kid is going places!
Bobbitt's choreography is inventive and energetic, and music director Sariva Goetz and seven additional musicians are seated in an upstage corner, making them feel an integral part of the show. Lighting designer Franklin Meissner, Jr. enhances the set, suggesting moods and locations, and costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt portrays the class differences and helps to define the characters. The sound design by Kevin L. Alexander is effective, enabling the accents to be heard and understood (Lee Nishri-Howitt, voice & accent coach).
Oliver! premiered in 1960 in London and ran for a record-breaking total of 2,618 performances. When it crossed the pond to Broadway in 1963, it garnered three Tony Awards, including Best Original Score, and the 1968 film version took home the Oscar for Best Picture. There have been many tours and revivals, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Surprisingly, this was my first time seeing the show, but it feels fresh and alive nearly sixty years after its birth. Perhaps the presence of a dark undercurrent causes it to resonate in our own dark moment, but I prefer to think that Bobbitt's optimistic spin on the material is the thing that stands out and makes us want to sing along.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (The Cast of Oliver!)