The day I saw the original Broadway production of Oliver! there was a full eclipse of the sun as I left that matinee. Even without the additional excitement of an astronomical phenomenon, the New York City Center Encores! production of this Lionel Bart gem is, in every way, just as wonderful and exciting as the original.
When Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s baton brought out the first notes of the Oliver! overture from the Encores! Orchestra, the memorable tunes just flowed and didn’t stop until more than two hours later at the standing ovation and exit music. Lionel Bart’s score is rich in melody, the lyrics and the libretto evoking Dickens while still being theatrical. (The late William David Brohn did the lavish orchestral arrangements.)
Lear deBessonet, the show’s director (and the Encores!’ artistic director) has fashioned a fast-moving evening filled with great performances starting with the sweet, fresh-faced Oliver of Benjamin Pajak and the incredibly talented ensemble of kids who gambol about with abandon.
The plot of Oliver! is a distillation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist: a poor orphan boy cast out of a workhouse taken in by a band of juvenile pickpockets led by the nefarious Fagin who finally finds happiness with his true family.
The role of Fagin, leader of the kiddy gang is played by Raúl Esparza who eschews the obvious Jewish colors to present a more nuanced emotional portrait of this controversial character. His two solo numbers, “My Name!” and “Reviewing the Situation” are well-balanced between humor and pathos.
Lilli Cooper plays the tragic heroine, Nancy with sensuality and a huge, clarion voice that put over her two great numbers: “It’s a Fine Life” and, particularly, “As Long As He Needs Me,” a “My Man” type song which she imbued with passion. The object of her love is Bill Sikes, played by the handsome, realistically menacing Tam Mutu.
Theater veterans Mary Testa, Brad Oscar, Rashidra Scott, Thom Sesma and Michael Siberry played and sang the comic characters with glee. As The Artful Dodger, Julian Lerner was deft in movement and song.
From the rough-hewn, wooden, multi-tiered set by David Rockwell (shades of original designer Sean Kenny!) to the atmospheric lighting of Justin Townsend, this Oliver! belies the short preparation and rehearsal period these productions have. Sarafina Bush’s costumes are colorful and period perfect. Lorin Latarro’s energetic choreography takes full advantage of the set and the ensemble’s talents.
Encores! hits another bulls-eye with Oliver!. Perhaps a Broadway transfer is in the future?
New York City Center Encores! Oliver! (through May 14, 2023)
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission