The lively revival of Oliver! at Paper Mill Playhouse reminded me what a fundamentally odd musical it is. Composer Lionel Bart adapted it from Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel Oliver Twist, one of his darkest works, featuring thieves, whores and murderers galore. Bart lightened the overall tone of this young orphan’s quest to find home and family in 1830s London. The most obvious result was the transformation of the evil master larcenist Fagin into something more like a charming pied piper.
Even with that lightening of tone however, there is still something ineffably strange about these relentlessly cheery tunes (the score is one of the catchiest, ever) cheek and jowl by dark Dickensian London, however whitewashed. Perhaps I should add it is entertainingly strange, especially in a production as energetic as this one, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, with frisky choreography by Joann M. Hunter.
The title character is a bit of a passive cipher – for the child actor playing Oliver, all that is really required is that you don’t get in the way of the audience sympathizing with your predicament, and that you sing your big song “Where is Love?” in a suitably angelic way. This production’s Oliver, Tyler Moran, does both, quite charmingly.
The characters that carry the weight of the show are the tragic prostitute Nancy (Betsy Morgan) and the abovementioned Fagin (David Garrison). Morgan knocks “As Long as He Needs Me”, Nancy’s big belting ballad, out of the ballpark, and Garrison wisely leans into the warmer and more compassionate qualities that Bart imparted to Fagin. Recommended.
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