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EJ Zimmerman as Nancy with Gavin Swartz as The Artful Dodger and the cast of Oliver! at Goodspeed Opera House. Photos by Diane Sobolewski )
Donald Corren as Fagin and the cast of Oliver! at Goodspeed Opera House. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski )
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From the compelling, ageless storyline, to the joyful, heartfelt musical score, if ever there was a musical that stands the test of time, it’s Oliver!
Many of us of a certain age have nostalgic connections to the classic good-prevails-over-evil Lionel Bart musical interpretation of the Charles Dickens’ saga set in Victorian London that opened in London’s West End in 1960. Mine include playing the score during my childhood piano lessons and committing every lyric to memory. Later, it was singing the upbeat “I’d Do Anything….for you” to my sons when they were little. And my older son’s appearance in an early production of Oliver! at the Ivoryton Playhouse when he was about 10, almost 25 years ago.
So, I had set a pretty high bar when I recently attended the Goodspeed production in the perfectly suited historic Opera House and for the most part, I found the show—directed by Rob Ruggiero with musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty—brought back the magic it had always held for me.
It is an appropriately dark show with a basic “bricks and mortar” set by Michael Schweikardt enhanced by John Lasiter’s alternating cool and warm lighting and Alejo Vietti’s un-frilly costumes that don’t attempt to romanticize Dickens’s portrayal of the poverty and sordid characters of mid-19th-century London.
The high-energy cast tastefully choreographed by James Gray gives its all in such big ensemble numbers as “Consider Yourself,” “Oom Pah Pah,” and “Food Glorious Food.” Especially lovely is “Who Will Buy?” in which the various street vendors appear on the balcony and throughout the theater before congregating on stage.
Among individual performances, Donald Corren stands out as the quintessential Fagin. He looks the part, and plays it to the hilt, creating a sympathetic both full-of-bull and endearing aging survivor, whether he’s instructing Oliver in how “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” or “Reviewing the Situation” after his young protégé gets nabbed stealing from wealthy Londoner, Mr. Brownlow (James Young).
EJ Zimmerman is a passionate and compassionate Nancy and her dynamic vocal range enhances all the numbers she sings, from “It’s a Fine Life” to “I’d Do Anything” and the show’s signature solo, “As Long As He Needs Me,” in reference to the villainous Bill Sikes, played by Brandon Andrus without a lot of depth but plenty of mean-spirited creepiness.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of chemistry between the lovers. When Nancy sings “As Long As He Needs Me,” we haven’t seen any indication that Bill needs her or loves her—all we see is his snarling physical abuse—and so it’s hard to fathom why she would stand by her man who never shows the slightest sign of standing by her.
The musical’s young lead, Elijah Rayman as the orphaned Oliver, has a sweet voice and sings a moving “Where is Love?” He transitions back and forth from innocent babe to feisty little fighter, but his responses are bit mechanical and less emotional than expected in light of the cruelty he experiences at the hands of the adults surrounding him.
Supporting roles worthy of mention include Richard R. Henry as big and boisterous as his broadly drawn character of Mr. Bumble, who runs the workhouse. He makes a nice love-hate match with the Widow Corney (amusingly portrayed by Joy Hermalyn) in “I Shall Scream!” and the reprise of “Oliver!” when they discover how they can profit off Oliver’s dire situation.
Gavin Swartz presents a charming Artful Dodger who knows how to con the best of his victims in the pickpocket circuit, and Jamie LaVerdiere has perfected the smooth but exaggerated Vaudevillian moves as Mr. Sowerberry, the eccentric undertaker.
An especially nice touch is the strolling violinist, whose quivering strings help build the suspense leading to Nancy’s tragic ending.
And there is a happy final “twist,” and “It’s a Fine Life” after all for Oliver.
All in all, this last show of the 2018 Goodspeed season is a most enjoyable evening of musical theater.
Performances of Oliver have been extended through Thursday, Sept. 13 at The Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam. For tickets and schedule of performances, call the box office at 860-873-8668 or visit www.goodspeed.org.
Amy J. Barry has been writing about Connecticut professional theater for more than 25 years. She is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. (ctcritics.org).
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