City Center Encores! Sings Strong! in an Awkward “Oliver!”

Benjamin Pajak and Raúl Esparza in NYCC Encores! production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Photo by Joan Marcus.

The New York Theatre Review: City Center Encores! production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!

By Ross

Young boys are tossed to the front of the stage, like full garbage bags on a New York City street. It’s an apropos beginning, the young thrown away moments before they burst into a magnificently produced song about hunger, malnutrition, child labor, and physical abuse. All at the hands of almost every adult these boys meet in the New York City Center Encores! musically strong revival of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, the classic award-winning 1960 musical based upon the 1838 novel, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, a man who loved to write about such things time and time again. With music, lyrics, and a book by Bart, who subsequently penned the respectable 1962 hit, Blitz!, and the universal 1965 flop, Twang!! (note the two !!s this time. I guess they thought one was not enough), Oliver! was the smash hit of Bart’s career, giving him awards upon awards, especially once the show was turned into the Oscar-winning 1968 film of the same name. The cinematic word for Oliver! was “More“, or so says the trailer, yet I have very little memory of the film. It never really connected to me when I was younger, although I have slight memories of a kindly complicated Nancy (Shani Wallis) full of life and suffering for it, and the beautifully voiced young boy (Mark Lester) lost in the cold cruel world, but who knew he wanted more.

The same could be said of the revival at NYCC’s Encores! It’s gloriously performed, sung to the heavens with a spectacularly rich sound emulating from The Encores! Orchestra headed by music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Broadway’s The Prom) with stellar orchestrations by William David Brohn (Broadway’s Ragtime) and music coordination by Kimberlee Wertz (Broadway’s Almost Famous). Elevated high above the crowded underbelly of the poor and destitute children that we first encounter tossed to the edge of the stage, all before bursting into the memorable “Food, Glorious Food“, the remounting, by special arrangement with Cameron MacIntosh, sings out loud and clear. The number serves up a musical feast, chock full of songs that take you back, even when they make you a bit uncomfortable when you take a deeper dive into what this musical is all about.

But let’s, for the moment, put aside the awkward layers of child labor, starvation, and abuse, heaped upon these poor young boys by almost every scheming adult character on that stage, as well as Nancy’s problematic song of abuse, “As Long As He Needs Me“, gorgeously performed by a stellar Lilli Cooper (Broadway’s Tootsie) making us almost forget what she is actually singing about. She’s that good in the role. Instead, let us focus on the formula and the feast, that includes one messy complicated book that needs a really good cleansing before this show can have a modern return to Broadway. That and some restructuring all around to make the piece a smoother ride down memory lane.

Rashidra Scott, Benjamin Pajak, and Thom Sesma in NYCC Encores! production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Photo by Joan Marcus.

Yet, all of the performers do their unbelievable magic with the material, which is particularly astounding knowing the quick turnaround of Encores! staging and the athleticism and skill needed to perform the choreography created by Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s Into the Woods). The cast uniformly finds all their flips, kicks, and moments to shine bright, even in the smaller parts and the more unfocused bits of traveling and transition. First off, there is the wonderful pairing of the despicable (and hilarious) Mr. Bumble and Widow Carney, played devilishly good by Brad Oscar (Broadway’s Mrs. Doubtfire) and Mary Testa (Broadway’s Oklahoma!), as well as the beautifully matched dasterdly funeral parlor owners, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (and Co.), portrayed wisely and wickedly by Thom Sesma (CSC’s A Man of No Importance) and Rashidra Scott (Broadway’s Company), who take over the stage with their delicious debauchery. Perfect work by some expert performers.

But they are no match for the feisty Oliver Twist, who is magnificently well-sung by Benjamin Pajak (Broadway’s The Music Man), as the young boy who never fails to stand up for himself, especially when he, famously, wants some more. He’s a tad stiff in the acting department, I’m sorry to say, but the musical and the book don’t really give him much to do beyond being the center peg for which all else revolves. Even when those wheels are pretty white umbrellas twirling the cast down the lane so beautifully.

Oliver, when not singing, is quite the passive character, for the most part. He responds and reacts, sitting on the sidelines while the adults do their dirty work all around him. That is unless he is standing up for his empty tummy or his dead mother’s honor. Then he becomes something quite proactive and aggressive. This is particularly true in the second act when he basically is haphazardly tossed around like a bag of potatoes from one evil man’s shoulder to another’s table, barely registering as anything rebellious or rambunctious in these wild moments. The book fails to take us through from one moment to another, faltering time and time again to give us a sense of emotional connection or an understanding of why and how bonds this strong are made. We just have to believe, as it goes forward, and accept, even when it doesn’t really add up.

The cast of NYCC Encores! production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Photo by Joan Marcus.

The production doesn’t seem to know what to do with Oliver in the second half, nor does it know how to deal with the violent deaths of the lovely Nancy and the demon Bill Sikes, portrayed red and darkly violent by Tam Mutu (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!), that happens up in the dark shadowy corners somewhat vague and clumsily. It’s here where the set, designed by David Rockwell (Broadway’s A Beautiful Noise), lit by designer Justin Townsend (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill) under the unfocused direction of Lear deBessonet (Encores’ Big River), with sound designed by Alex Neumann (Encores/Broadway’s Into the Woods), that Oliver! loses its footing and drive. The space seems to swallow up the action, expanding some moments while crowding in others. It’s only when Pajak gets the chance to vocally shine, as he does with his magnificently well-sung “Where Is Love?“, that nothing else seems to matter. And nothing else comes close.

The other highlight of the show, beyond the wonderfully convincing Cooper as the complicated but feisty Nancy, enters casually, strolling out from under the beams juggling a few handkerchiefs around like a traveling magician. In the well-orchestrated guise of Fagin, deliciously and wildly created by Raúl Esparza (Broadway’s Company; Encores! Off-Center’s’ Road Show), the conman feels like a friend and a foe all wrapped up in a bright long jacket, courtesy of some fine work by costume designer Sarafina Bush (Broadway’s Pass Over). His creation is something of a mystery and awkward confusion, and even though brilliantly entertaining, we wonder what all that fuss is about the jewelry box (thrown away so casually later on) or why he takes such an intital shine to the young Oliver, even with his loyal sidekick, the wonderfully delivered Artful Dodger, portrayed strongly by Julian Lerner (“Boys of Summer“), standing nearby and presenting Oliver up so caringly. The two bright jacket pickpockets are the first to give Oliver a sense of familial care, even as it feels quite quick and shady. But so much of this musical has that aspect, with numerous quick uncomfortable jumps to illogical conclusions. We just have to pick a pocket or two and join in the fun, or we will get left in the dust thinking about it all too much.

Julian Lerner, Benjamin Pajak (center, l-r), and the young cast of NYCC Encores! production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Photo by Joan Marcus.

Now I’m not sure if I missed something, but all of a sudden Oliver has been grabbed by the police after a failed pickpocket mess, and is now in the rich and warm care of Mr. Brownlow, politely portrayed by Michael Siberry (LCT’s JUNK) with a sturdy Mrs. Bedwin, played by Alma Cuervo (CSC’s A Man of No Importance), by his side ready to give little Oliver a big hug and squeeze. As we are left to wonder, “Who Will Buy” all of this, the book really does seem to lack the narrative drive that we have become used to in more modern musicals, alongside the other part it displays; the disquieting idea that a high-kicking musical jumping over all these horrors is supposed to be (and sorta is) this much fun.

It’s a Fine Life” or is it for Oliver!? The music is pretty divine and gorgeously performed, with joyous dance numbers and sublime comic bits that delight and entertain. Esparza, Cooper, and especially Pajak do their damn best vocalizing and enlivening the material inside every song and dance. Yet, if Encores! was hoping this would become another Parade or, even better yet, something as successful as the Into the Woods Broadway transfer, I think they’ve been conned. Some work needs to be done, restructuring that structure that slowed this production down, and more importantly, some deft rewriting of that complicated book to remake Oliver! into some “food, glorious food“, and a treat that we will have no problem devouring. Hungry or not.

The cast of NYCC Encores! production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Photo by Joan Marcus.

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