BWW Review: OLIVER! at Goodspeed Opera House

BWW Review: OLIVER! at Goodspeed Opera House"Please, sir. I want some more." These are the iconic words are spoken by young Oliver Twist at the beginning of Lionel Bart's classic musical OLIVER! This simple ask for more to eat sets Oliver out on a dangerous but exciting journey into a world where his innocence and positive outlook impacts all he meets. These words also sum up the experience of watching OLIVER!, which is the second show in Goodspeed Musicals current season. OLIVER! is a show that excites, enthralls and leaves you, in the end, simply wanting more. OLIVER! is one of those shows that doesn't get produced that often, possibly due in part to the number of children needed to pull it off appropriately, which is why it is thrilling to see Goodspeed give its signature treatment to this classic musical that many may not have experienced before (this reviewer included.)

Even if not familiar with the musical itself, many will be aware of the source material, Charles Dickens' classic tale, Oliver Twist. The story centers on young orphan, Oliver (Elijah Rayman) who lives in an unforgiving orphanage/workhouse and dares to ask for more gruel at suppertime. In response, he is subsequently sold to an undertaker and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Jamie LaVerdiere and Karen Murphy) as a worker in their funeral parlor. He escapes and quickly finds himself part of a band of young thieves, including the wily Artful Dodger (Gavin Swartz). Leading this "school for thieves" is the petty criminal turned den father, Fagin (Donald Corren) who BWW Review: OLIVER! at Goodspeed Opera Houseteaches Oliver how to "Pick a Pocket or Two" and adds him to his band of young miscreants. Oliver is not that good at being a pickpocket (could be due to his good nature), and is subsequently caught. He soon finds himself at the home of Mr. Brownlow (James Young) who is moved by Oliver's situation and takes him under his wing. But Fagin's crew - black hearted criminal Bill Sikes (Brandon Andrus) and his girl Nancy (EJ Zimmerman) - worry that Oliver may give them up to the police and set out to rectify the situation. Kidnappings, secret meetings and violence ensues, changing the lives of all of these characters, including young Oliver, forever.

With OLIVER!, Goodspeed Musicals once again does what it does best - takes a classic musical, dusts it off, shines it up and thrills audiences with a fresh, exciting and heartwarming take on a time-worn tale. It is clear that Rob Ruggiero, as director, has taken special care with this production, ensuring the right balance of gritty realism and youthful optimism resulting in a well-balanced and thrilling performance. OLIVER! is one of those shows that if the tone is off (too light or too dark) it just doesn't work. But for this production Mr. Ruggiero finds the perfect mixture in his direction and overall artistic vision for OLIVER!

BWW Review: OLIVER! at Goodspeed Opera HouseIn the title role of Oliver, Elijah Rayman is very good. His Oliver is resigned to his life, but never loses his boyish glow or his optimistic outlook on life. It is hard not to smile watching him deliver classic songs like "Where is Love" and "Who Will Buy?". The other standout youth performance worth noting is that of Gavin Swartz as the Artful Dodger. As the dynamic and energetic leader of Fagin's youth, Swartz gives a strong performance all around, including some impressive dancing and a solid English accent. Donald Corren's Fagin is slimy and scheming, but with a glint of possibility in his eyes. All of his songs are great, but especially in "Reviewing the Situation" where he duets with the violin (magnificently played by Andrew Mayer). Rounding out the principal performances, Brandon Andrus' Bill Sikes is believably heartless and with his booming bass voice and gruff demeanor, he's the kind of guy you don't want to run into in a dark alley. Finally, EJ Zimmerman's Nancy is conflicted in her love of Bill, yet moved by her attachment to young Oliver. A highlight of any production of OLIVER!, Nancy's ballad "As Long As He Needs Me" soars and doesn't disappoint.

Speaking of Nancy, and that song in particular, the one difficulty I have with the script is Nancy's relationship with Bill. While certainly reflective of Dickens' original and of the time it was written, in 2018 it is challenging and heartbreaking to see the good-hearted Nancy return to Bill without question. That said, like other classic musicals with similar themes (CAROUSEL, KISS ME KATE), one hopes that audiences will see Nancy and Bill (and their fate) as an opportunity to discuss contemporary attitudes and how they have evolved.

In terms of the remainder of the cast, OLIVER! has an extremely strong ensemble BWW Review: OLIVER! at Goodspeed Opera Housewho each have moments in the show to shine. Karen Murphy, a favorite of this reviewer, is great as both Mrs. Sowerberry and Mrs. Bedwin and it was a thrill to see her take on these character roles. But as stated earlier, you can't have OLIVER! without a bunch of kids and the children in Goodspeed's production are thrilling to watch. They do such a great job whenever they are on stage.

In terms of creative, James Bray's choreography captures the period well, especially in the second act music-hall opener "Oom-Pah-Pah". Michael Schweikardt's two-story set is simple yet completely functional, conveying the dark stone and iron of an English workhouse. Alejo Vietti's costumes are the perfect mix of rags for the poor and beautiful clothing for the citizens of London. John Lasiter's lighting and Jay Hilton's sound design add the perfect touches of mood to elevate the experience throughout. Finally, Michael O'Flaherty, as always, delivers a top notch musical experience with his small, but mighty orchestra.

Goodspeed Musicals has done a great job bringing OLIVER! to life on the Opera House stage. It is a non-stop thrill of familiar, and not so familiar, songs that tell a classic tale in a way that excites and entertains. But, as it is not a show that comes around very often, you should make sure to take the time to make a trip to the Goodspeed and "Consider Yourself" at home!

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OLIVER! runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through September 13, 2018. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). For more information, call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.

Top photo: "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

Mid photo: 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

Mid photo 2: "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

Bottom photo : The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Oliver!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 13. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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