From 1837 to 1839, Charles Dickens published “Oliver Twist,” a novel that portrayed the world of poverty and crime in 19th century London. “Oliver Twist” is a grim story of social injustice that became one of the author’s most popular books. More than 100 years later, English composer-writer Lionel Bart created the musical “Oliver!” (exclamation point but no “Twist in the title). The show became enormously popular in England in the 1960’s, and a minor success in the United States.
Bart’s adaptation follows the bare bones of the novel in tracing the turbulent life of young Oliver Twist, an orphan born in a London workhouse and much abused by the social inequalities of the day until he finally finds happiness with a wealthy Londoner who turns out to be his grandfather.
“Oliver!” has a couple of songs that approached hit status in “As Long As He Needs Me” and “Consider Yourself.” But its greatest virtue resides in filling the stage with a large collection of talented boys who play endearing young criminals under the tutelage of their mentor Fagin, a Dickens villain turned into a lovable rascal named Fagin in Lionel Bart’s version.
The Marriott Theatre is reviving “Oliver!” and predictably the chief pleasures of the production reside in the skills of a large cluster of youthful singer-dancer-actors who steal the show, under the savvy tutelage of guest director Nick Bowling. The cast photos in the show playbill resemble a junior high school yearbook and the opening night audience was awash in proud and responsive parents, grandparents, and siblings.
It’s fortunate that the kids are so good because “Oliver!” is just an adequate show. In condensing the story to accommodate the musical numbers, Bart left out huge chunks of essential narrative, resulting in a skimpy plot that allows for very little depth and may be occasionally difficult to follow. Some production numbers only soak up stage time, injected to provide splashy singing and dancing scenes.
The Marriott in-the-round playing area limits opportunities for pageantry. Indeed, Sean Kenney’s huge rotating set that dominated the productions in London and New York City got as much acclaim from many critics as the performances. Jeffrey Kmiec has been largely restricted to using furniture props in his set designs at Marriott.
Whatever the imperfections of the musical, it is impossible to overpraise the joys of Kai Edgar in the title role at Marriott. The lad is 8 years old and he steals the show. Productions I’ve seen generally use the character of Oliver in the early scenes, especially his solo “Where Is Love?” lament, and then allow the character to fade into the background as the adults move to the forefront, presumably to avoid putting too much burden on the boy playing Oliver. Edgar (who alternates with Kayden Koshelev in the role) is cute without being cutesy. He has a strong and expressive voice and the chap definitely can act. No allowances need be made for Edgar’s youth. He is the real deal as a performer and he is the best reason for seeing the show.
William Brown is an odd choice as Fagin. Brown is a superb actor in sophisticated straight plays but seems too urbane as a denizen of the brutish London underworld. Fagin has a certain sleazy charm but the man is also a criminal with a violent edge. Dan Waller plays Bill Sykes, the true villain of the story, but the role is too sketchy to allow Waller sufficient opportunity to allow his viciousness to make much of an impact.
There are no complaints about the supporting performances of Matthew Jones as the unctuous and contemptible workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble, Bethany Thomas as his shrewish wife, and Jason Grimm and Caron Buinis as the nasty Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry. They all supply a welcome Dickensian flavor to the production. As the tragic Nancy, Lucy Godinez belts out “As Long As He Needs Me” with rafter-shaking power, though her character is too thinly drawn in Lionel Bart’s book.
The Marriott staging may necessarily be limited in set design but the theater has allowed Sally Dolembo to go the limit in outfitting the large cast with a vast wardrobe of Victorian era costumes reflecting both upper and lower class dress. The fine physical production is completed by Jesse Klug’s lighting, Robert Gilmartin’s sound design, and Sally Zack’s properties. And a special shout-out to Kathy Logelin for instructing the ensemble, young and adult both, so credibly in the English dialects of the day. The kids in the cast all must have had good ears to speak the cockney twang so credibly. Patti Garwood leads the large pit orchestra, smoothly meeting the challenge of accompanying a group of children in their intricate chorus vocalizing. Brenda Didier is the choreographer.
“Oliver!” is a prettified version of Dickens’s indictment of the treatment of the poor of early Victorian England. Lionel Bart has converted the novel into what can be called a happy show with a few dramatic moments. So “Oliver!” is what it is, so maybe it’s unfair to criticize the musical for not aspiring higher as an artistic endeavor (like “Les Miserables”). Credit the Marriott revival for capturing much of the story’s historical ambiance and it does well with Lionel Bart’s decent but not exceptional score. Most important, the theater has seized on its opportunity to charm the audience with Kai Edgar’s stellar performance.