‘Oliver!’ at Marriott Theatre is terrific, thanks in large part to these kids
When the late Jack Wild played the Artful Dodger in Carol Reed’s 1968 movie of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” — which won six Academy Awards, including best picture — he was 16 years old. Even Mark Lester, a child-actor who won hearts in the title role and later packed in showbiz to become an osteopath, already was into his double digits. And in the years that followed, I’ve seen plenty of teenagers essay both roles. In the case of Dodger, you often get a musical-theater guy in his early 20s.
In Nick Bowling’s excellent new production of “Oliver!” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Kai Edgar, whom I saw play Oliver Twist, is eight years old. Patrick Scott McDermott, who plays the Dodger, is 10.
Both of them are terrific; Edgar, in fact, turned in a perfectly pitched and generally flawless vocal performance that rendered the ballad “Where is Love?” as beautifully as I have heard it sung without any surfeit of sentiment.
The presence of these boys, whose youth must have been an intentional choice on Bowling’s part, makes this an “Oliver!” very much about the Victorian mistreatment of actual children, albeit with a happy ending for one of them. But there is another striking performance on view here: Lucy Godinez as Nancy.
Young Godinez, who is not long out of college, has a Broadway-quality instrument and so powerful and yet open a stage presence that you worry about the ability of our city to retain her talents. Those of us who have been around for a while cannot help but compare her singing to that of her mother, Nancy Voigts, also a formidable vocalist, and to Jessie Mueller, who also emerged mostly at this theater. “Oliver!,” of course, is an old-fashioned show that sets up its 11 o’clock power-ballad, “As Long As He Needs Me,” in all the usual ways, meaning that the performer has to thrill us through all the key changes while still dealing the complex emotional content of a song that could be (and often has been) sung as a love ode to a lousy man. Except that Godinez is far too smart to do that and turns it instead into a great roar of painful self-expression that explains her initially cowed character’s determined rebellion against the tyranny of Bill Sikes (played by Dan Waller, who is singularly unpleasant).
And if that darkens “Oliver!” a bit from what you might have seen in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, that is well and good.
Bowling has some other fine ideas. He gets rid of the stereotyping around Fagin, with its strong whiff of anti-Semitism, casting Bill Brown, whose miser might be less bravura than the Ron Moody-esque hand-rubbing model but thinks and feels and doubts a lot more. Bowling also changes the opening a little, nixing the tired line of orphans headed to grab their gruel from Mr. Bumble (Matthew R. Jones) and Mrs. Corney (Bethany Thomas) in favor of showing us a table filled with bewhiskered fat-cats chomping on roast beasts, only to find a bunch of dreaming orphans coming after them with the determination of Elizabeth Warren parting billionaires from a portion of their stash.
There is nothing dated about “Oliver Twist,” as conceived by Charles Dickens. Indeed, of all Dickens’ works, this particular story makes clearer than any other novel the judgments and tyranny heaped on kids merely as a consequence of the accident of their birth; one early draft of Bart’s musical actually had a song called, “That Boy is Born to be Hung.” In the Britain and America of the late 1960s, Bart was trying to deliver both the social consciousness of his source while being true to the essential optimism present in this particular work of Dickens, suffused as it is with the idea that goodness can survive where even the smallest chance abides. This musical is so familiar now that it is easily dismissed, but it remains striking how many characters wrestle with their own morality. Not Bill Sikes, of course. Some of us are irredeemable. And not Oliver, an innocent kid buffeted around a singing, swinging London wondering what on Earth will happen to him next.