The opening scene of Oliver!, currently playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse, is the workhouse, where we first meet the orphans marching in formation down the stairs, wooden spoons in grip, banging bowls, singing “Food, Glorious Food.” For this show-stopping number the audience approval came through with applause and hoots permeating the theater. The similarity of this scene to the remarkable and frankly impossible to top film version was a wonderful initiation to this overall well-performed play—even though, for those of us who have watched the movie too many times to count, then shown it to our own children ad nauseam, it’s hard to put aside the stellar performances of those film icons (Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes).
But in all fairness, this production hit many high marks, considering. Oliver Twist (played by Tyler Moran), fit the part perfectly with his blushing cheeks and sweet demeanor, and though he strained for those truly upper notes it was more than acceptable. David Garrison (Steve Rhoades on Married with Children) played the part of Fagin quite believably. Nancy (played by Betsy Morgan) had strong vocals but her first scene with Oliver singing “I’d Do Anything,” came across as a bit harsh and strident, making me long for the sweet-hearted Nancy of the movie who was so integral in keeping the emotional balance (though in later scenes Morgan did soften considerably).
The part of Bill Sykes (played by Jose LLana of Broadway acclaim) stood out with his combination of stunning vocals and perfect psychopathic persona. Always in full demonic character, when he hit Nancy after the “Oom-Pah-Pah” number, that forceful blow could be felt in the last rows of the theater. Similarly, the Artful Dodger (played by the talented Ethan Haberfield), though early on tending to muffle his words, held his own singing and dancing.
Again, most probably for those of us who grew up with the film score, it seemed the orchestra music was rushing, noticeably at a faster clip from the film and at times could be jarring in its speed.
Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. All in all, an enjoyable Christmastime musical, of course based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Playing till December 29, 2013.