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On the Town with Chip Deffaa: Reflections on “Oliver!”, Revival and Broadway Economics

Oliver! is darker than most so-called family musicals—mixing elation and heartbreak as casually as life itself does—but it touches us more than most family musicals. And Encores’ production deserves a longer life.

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[avatar user=”Chip DeFFaa” size=”96″ align=”left”] Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]

Oh!  There was so much joy in the peak moments of the City Center Encores presentation of Oliver! that I’m still beaming.  I’m not saying their presentation was perfect; few things in life are, and I’ll address some reservations that I had a bit later in this piece.  But the best moments of the show were so satisfying, so rewarding, and so rich with life, I do wish the Encores production (starring Raul Esparza, Lilli Cooper, and Benjamin Pajak) could transfer to Broadway.  More people deserve to experience what I got to experience at City Center.  I also believe that the additional rehearsal-time that is an inevitable part of a Broadway transfer would make this good production even better.

Raul Esparza, Benjamin Pajak, Lilli Cooper, and cast of “Oliver!” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Far too many years have passed since Oliver! has been seen on Broadway.  And this production, which gets an awful lot right, is proof—if any were needed–that the show still has what it takes to captivate an audience. (And the energy is captured well in the production photos by Joan Marcus.)    After leaving the theater, I was walking down the street when I suddenly realized that I was singing one of the terrific songs from the show, “Consider Yourself.”  (The indulgent friend walking with me told me that  I seemed too happy for him to even consider interrupting me.)  Late that night, at my home up on Garret Mountain in New Jersey, I found myself singing that same song to my deer, out on the grass, as I fed them apples: “Consider yourself at home, consider yourself part of the family….”  And as I type these words now, that deliciously infectious song is still playing in my mind as a kind of background music.   When was the last time you left a theater humming or singing a song from the score?  For me, it’s been quite a while.  But the exceptionally musical score of Oliver! is filled with memorable numbers.  And it’s damned good to hear them again.

Moreover, this production stars a truly wonderful young singer named Benjamin Pajak as the orphan Oliver Twist.  His singing—pure, true, vulnerable, and endearing—will melt the heart of even the most hardened and cynical theater-goer.  It’s a treat to hear him sing songs like “Where is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” He sustains the final notes of phrases so masterfully.

It is very difficult to find a young actor with an unchanged voice who can sing so well. And there’s an individuality to his singing; he made me feel like I was hearing these familiar songs for the first time.  I’m hoping a Broadway transfer can  happen while he’s still young enough to play this role.  Once his voice drops, he’ll have to move on to other parts; the role of “Oliver” requires an unchanged voice.  And he’s a real find.

Benjamin Pajak in “Oliver!” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Pajak has not only got the tonal beauty that is needed, he is also tremendously likeable on stage.  You just take to him.  You care what will happen to him.  Young actors who are so perfectly suited to play “Oliver” are extremely rare.  And much of the success of any production of Oliver! rests on the shoulders of the boy cast as “Oliver.”   It is not  the only main role in the show, of course.  The roles of “Fagin” and “Nancy” are  essential, and we’ll get to them in a bit.  But to fully realize the potential of this musical, you need to have a very good “Oliver.”  And in Benjamin Pajak, they’ve got one. If possible, they should do a Broadway transfer while he’s still available.  

I’m happy to see New York’s theater community fully “discovering” Pajak now.  He’s just been invited, for example, to sing at this year’s Theatre World Awards on June 5th.  I actually first heard what a terrific “Oliver” Pajak was from a discerning, theater-loving friend, Andy Feinberg, who caught him doing the show in Florida, in a production starring Jon Peterson as “Fagin”; my friend thought Pajak was such an extraordinarily good “Oliver,” I should know about it. That was before Pajak had been cast to play “Oliver” for Encores.  But I was getting that first hint of a “buzz” about him in Oliver! from the time he started doing a production of the show in Florida.  And others who’d seen him or worked with him soon echoed what Feinberg told me.  So I  was very much looking forward to seeing him in this role at Encores.

The last few stage productions of Oliver! that I’ve seen all had competent but undistinguished young actors playing “Oliver.”  In each of those production, the actors I saw playing “Fagin”—Brian Stokes Mitchell  in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s concert presentation of Oliver!, Kevin Gray at Connecticut’s Edgerton Center, and  John Anthony Lopez at  Westchester Broadway Theatre—made a much more memorable impression than the rather generic young actors playing “Oliver.”  Those productions all had young actors playing “Oliver” who could hit the notes correctly in the big songs—which is difficult enough in and of itself; those are challenging songs for any young actor to sing—but those young actors didn’t convey the heart, the feeling that the role requires.  And the productions suffered as a result. Here’s one side note worth mentioning.  In the Oscar-winning 1968 film adaptation of Oliver!which was a tremendous success, both artistically and commercially—young actor Mark Lester gave a widely acclaimed performance as “Oliver.”  Filmgoers and reviewers in 1968 had no idea that Lester was not doing his own singing in the motion picture; his vocals were actually dubbed, without any public acknowledgement, by singer/actress Kathe Green, who was 23 years old at the time! She did a very good job, and the film certainly worked well.  But—truth be told–I much prefer Pajak’s singing.

The City Center Encores production also benefits from having a talented, high-spirited group of  young actors surrounding “Oliver”—seen first as members of the orphanage and then as members of the gang of youthful pickpockets that “Fagin” has working for him.  The two standouts—the best dancers in the group of eight (both far better than the dancers I’ve seen in other productions of Oliver!)  were William Thomas Coilin and Michael Cash.  They had me from the moment they exuberantly, effortlessly did flips across the stage.  Both filled their  moments on stage terrifically.  Both added a lot.    Colin, incidentally,  is an absolutely first-rate young dancer, and every move he made was precise, decisive, committed.  Lots presence on stage. Even playing a horse pulling a carriage, at the start of “I’d Do Anything,” he was  great fun–I noted appreciatively not just the perfect placement of the hands, or the movements of the legs; but even the way he shook his head a bit, suggesting a horse whinnying;  he fully  became a horse—and an admirably proud horse, at that!

These kids were members of the ensemble—they were not stars or featured players—but their contributions to the production, nonetheless,  were invaluable.  I was amazed that choreographer Lorin Latarro got such fine, tight work out of the ensemble, knowing how quickly Encores presentations are put together. And I am sure the dancers could  do even more, if afforded additional rehearsal time. That’s another reason I’d love to see a Broadway run.

Raul Esparza as Fagin in “Oliver!” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Technically, City Center Encores presentations are classified as concert performances, and they are  mounted with limited rehearsal time.  The earliest Encores presentations, back in the 1990s, had more of the look and feel of traditional concert-style/staged-reading presentations, with minimal costuming and actors holding scripts in their hands (or sometimes having scripts/scores on music stands); that’s my recollection, anyway, of some early presentations I saw nearly 30 years ago. But over the years, the Encores presentations have come to look and feel more and more like real Broadway productions.  

The cast-members in Oliver! were fully costumed (and costumed well) by Sarafina Bush; the actors  were all certainly “off book” (not reading from scripts).  And the actors carried off the choreographywhich sometimes drew upon Onna White’s choreography from the film for inspirationwith polish and flair. I really stand in awe of how much Encores is able to  accomplish with just a couple of weeks’ rehearsal; more time was spent rehearsing and shooting one number (“Consider Yourself”)  for the film version of Oliver! than was spent preparing  this whole Encores production.  The unit set by David Rockwell created for Encores was simple but effective, without looking cheap.  (You’d want a more fully realized scenic design for Broadway.)  But the potential—the possibilities—of a full-scale Broadway revival were clearly there to see in this Encores production.

Off the top of my head, I can think of about six productions that came to Broadway via Encores, ranging from Chicago to Into the Woods.  And I can recall a few other exceptionally well-done Encores shows I very much hoped would come to Broadway that did not transfer.  I remember urging, in my New York Post review, that The Boys from Syracuse be transferred to Broadway; that never happened, but at least that all-star Encores revival got a cast album.  (About 20 Encores shows have gotten cast albums.) If they ever put out a cast album of this production of Oliver!, I’ll be the first on line to buy a copy. I’d love to see this production memorialized on disc.

Oliver! was created by one man—Lionel Bart. That genius—who never created  anything else to match Oliver! and died broke–created the book, music, and lyrics for this show. The glorious score features one grand number after another.  In the early 1960s, Oliver! was a great hit on stage in both London and New York.  And the subsequent film adaptation was a huge international hit.  But a revival of Oliver! on Broadway in 1984 flopped despite a glittering cast headed by Ron Moody and Patti LuPone.  That revival  was mounted during an odd period, when “Golden Age” Broadway musicals which are now recognized as classics, were often being dismissed as “old-fashioned and irrelevant,”  (A big Broadway revival of Mame starring Angela Lansbury, for example, also flopped in that same period.)  And maybe the highly popular film was then  still so familiar to everyone that most people did not feel the need to  go see a stage revival.  But so many years have passed since then, I think Oliver! will be new to many.  (The friend I took to see it—a respected theater professional, nearly 50 years old—had never seen Oliver! on stage or on screen; the musical was new to him, and a revelation.)

The audience responded with such enthusiasm throughout the City Center Encores performance that  I attended,  I think this lively family musical, which has lots of heart, could do well today.  The script moves along quickly. The story is told clearly and well.  Director Lear Debessonet, choreographer Lorin Latarro, and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell have all gotten well into the spirit of the show. 

 And  the show is far superior to most so-called family musicals we get nowadays.   Such popular Disney stage musicals as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin are really aimed at kids.  They’re always professionally done, and I can always appreciate professionalism. But they’re not my cup of tea.

If a take a younger niece or nephew to see such a show, I know they will enjoy it, and so will I—but to a much  lesser degree than my niece or nephew will.  I’ll feel I’m watching somewhat dumbed-down entertainment; these are not shows I’d want to see repeatedly on my own.  They’re somewhat simplistic, obvious, and are clearly written for younger audiences.  Oliver! is a musical that adults can whole-heartedly enjoy, and kids will also enjoy.  There’s nothing dumbed-down about it.  It has a more profound understanding of life.  And the darker elements in the story give it more of a true-to-life feeling. (I think the Encores production would have  benefitted from accenting the darker elements even more.) It is rare to encounter musicals that work so well for both old and young as Oliver!  does.  And that’s another reason a revival is needed.

 “Fagin”–the leader of a band of young pickpockets–is a wonderful role. Over the years I’ve seen wildly different  actors find all  different ways of interpreting the role effectively.  Lionel Bart crafted a marvelously ambiguous script that gives actors great freedom in how  they wish to play “Fagin.”  I’ve seen

“Fagin” played on stage as wholly a villain from start to finish, and that can work—although I don’t think it’s the most interesting option.  I’ve also seen “Fagin” portrayed (without changing a line of the text)  as a lovable rogue from start to finish, and that too can work—although, again, I don’t think that’s the most interesting option.  

The show works best, as far as I’m concerned, if “Fagin” is very carefully shaded,  so we see more of his darker side at first, and gradually find him more likeable, so that by show’s end we feel he’s grown or we’ve come to know him better, and we’ve gone on an emotional journey with him.  It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s essential to the success of the production.

 I don’t think this production has yet found quite the ideal balance between the darker and lighter aspects of “Fagin”’s character.  I hate to carp about this, because these Encore productions are mounted so quickly, actors don’t have the time they would in a full Broadway production to see what can be found in  a character during rehearsals, or what choices might work best.  I like Raul Esparzawho’s “Fagin” in this production—a lot.  I always have.  But I don’t think he’s yet found all that  can be found in the character.  

Esparza, playing “Fagin” at Encores, has been a great favorite of mine since I saw him starring in the original production of  Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! 22 years ago.  (And I also attended the recording session for the cast album of that show. I enjoyed him, too, in The Rocky Horror Show (and was lucky enough to attend the recording session for the cast album of that show, as well), and in assorted other shows, both good and bad. It’s always a treat to see him on stage.  And of course his Law and Order: SVU television work has won him many more fans. (He did such fine work on the long-running Law and Order: SVU, I feared the theater might lose him forever to television.)   I’m very glad to see him doing any musical–Broadway needs him–and he’s charming and believable throughout. He’s a very appealing “Fagin.”  I found much to relish in his performance.

But Esparza has such a naturally likeable personality that he feels like an old friend from his first appearance on stage in Oliver!.  We like him very much  from the get-go.  And he certainly appears to like the kids working for him and they appear to like him just fine as well.   There’s lots of  positive energy on the stage from the start. It’s a love-fest. He and kids really connect so well—think of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, or Robin Hood and his Merry Men—we bask in their happiness.  And that feels good.  But if “Fagin” is so very likeable from the start, there’s really nowhere to go.  

I think the show  as a whole pays off better if we initially perceive “Fagin” as charming but perhaps dangerous; beguiling but somewhat menacing.  If we’re not sure, early on, if we wholly like him or if he’s actually a threat to those around him, then there’s more room for the character to grow, and we feel more surprise and relief to discover, by the end, that he actually cares about Oliver’s well-being.  Audiences like seeing main characters learn and grow.

And creating more tension early on in a production of Oliver!–letting us feel that Fagin, although charming, might be truly villainous–makes us feel more relief when we realize, by show’s end, that Fagin may have  more humanity in him than we initially suspected.  If the character is played a little darker at the start, there’s more room for the character  to grow over the course of the play.   We need to be unsure, in the early part of the show, if he actually cares about these kids at all or is just manipulating them, exploiting them, so that they will rob for him and bring him the only thing he really cares about—the loot!  If we like him too much from the start—and Esparza is immensely likeable on stage—there’s not enough tension for the show to fully work its magic.  It should come as a surprise for us to realize, late in the show, that Fagin has more humanity in him than we initially suspected.  When he reprises singing “Reviewing the Situation” near the show’s end, we should feel it’s being done not just to repeat a good song, but because Fagin is really reflecting on how best to live his life. He’s yearning for something better.

Cast of “Oliver!” and Community Youth Ensemble (photo – Joan Marcus)

Julian Lerner, as the Artful Dodger, was likeable, and he sang “Consider Yourself” with zest.  But his spoken lines, too often, were incomprehensible.  I fault the director here.  Lerner needs extra help to make sure he speaks not quite so quickly and he enunciates much more clearly.  He has good television credits, but he may not understand what it takes to project spoken lines clearly in a big theater. His words were clear when he sang.  But he was the only actor in that big cast whom  I had trouble understanding when he spoke.  And his character, as a result, had less impact.  If you don’t enunciate clearly, everything is lost.  Someone needs to work with him on enunciation

Mary Testa was just terrific, making much out of relatively little–as she’s so often done in her career–in her supporting role.  She’s such a wonderful character actor!  About a quarter-century ago,  reviewing her in On the Town for the New York Post, I marveled at the way she managed to make a small featured role so much more memorable than many of the bigger roles.  And she’s done that same thing time and again in shows since then.  As the Widow Corney—a role I’ve barely noticed in most productions of Oliver!she had me savoring every word she uttered.  And Brad Oscar was well matched with her.  There really was a lot to enjoy in this production.  And I like the color-blind casting that Encores always gives us.  The  shows have an inclusive feel that is nice.

I first fell in love with the musical Oliver! even before I got to see it on Broadway or in the subsequent film version. It just seemed to speak to me from my first exposure.  And I can tell you exactly when that was.

When I was growing up, our family—like so many others—watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday on TV.  And  I was especially excited to watch one Sunday because the Beatles were going to be performing live on Ed Sullivan, and they were then all the rage. Beatlemania was then at its peak; you heard the Beatles constantly on the radio, and my sister was busy playing their debut album as much as possible.  And everybody at school was saying they couldn’t wait to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

And I watched the Beatles that Sunday and I thought they were fun  They were easy to like.  But they were everywhere at the time—played so much on the radio—that seeing them on TV was a bit anti-climactic.  What I enjoyed even more that night on the Ed Sullivan Show—and it came as a total surprise to me—was seeing the cast of the just-opened Broadway production of Oliver! performing “Consider Yourself.” Leading the number was a then-unknown Davy Jones (as the Artful Dodger), who in the next couple of years would become a teen idol as a member of the Monkees.  And I thought the whole number from Oliver! was more exhilarating than the Beatles (as appealing as they were).  I liked the cast album of Oliver!, which came along soon after that, very much.  Still do. I’d love to see the show return.

One thing slightly saddened me, though, about the 2023 Encores production.  I was  hoping to hear once again  the original orchestrations, as heard on the original cast album.  What we heard at City Center, however, were the orchestrations created for the 1990s British revival  of the show, which was a downsized version of Oliver! (both in terms of number of musicians and number of performers) compared to the original production from the early 1960s.  I would have preferred hearing the original orchestrations, created for the larger original orchestra, with more strings to bring out the full beauty of the ballads.  Don’t get me wrong; the later orchestrations are fine in their own right.  The 20 members of the City Center Encores Orchestra did justice to the charts.  And the sound design in the house was superb.  You heard the singers and the orchestra, well-balanced, clearly throughout the night.  But if we can’t hear the original orchestrations at City Center Encores, where will we ever hear them?

And the cast size was reduced to the size used in the 1990s revival (and subsequent British productions).  When Oliver! first opened on Broadway in 1963, there were 42  actors in the company.  And the 1984 Broadway revival maintained the cast size of the original. This time there were 32 performers in the cast—which is big by current standards, but not quite as big as the original production.  It saddens me to see average cast sizes and average orchestra sizes shrink so noticeably in my life time.  

But then, for one glorious number in the Encores revival, 20 additional young players—billed as the “Community Youth Ensemble”—joined the regular cast onstage, and the theater almost seemed to explode with all of that welcome added energy.  It was terrific seeing the stage filled with so many extra singers and dancers.  Oh, I wish a way could be found to revive the show on Broadway and keep all of those additional players for a number or two.  

That’s on my wish list anyway.  I’m glad I don’t have to crunch the numbers and  weigh the costs of each added performer, even if some kind of contract concessions could be granted.  But Broadway could sure use a jolt of extra energy right now.  

Broadway still has not recovered—or come close to recovering—from the pandemic.  Business right now, overall, is about 17% less than it was before the pandemic.  And even the most acclaimed new musicals to open on Broadway this season, such as New York, New York, Some Like it Hot, Shucked, and Kimberly Akimbo are struggling to break even most weeks.  Tourism has not fully rebounded, which hurts the theater.  Many office buildings are empty as workers work from home, which further hurts the theater business.  It’s easier for a man who’s already in Manhattan for his job to grab a meal at a local restaurant and catch a show in the city than to make a special  trip into the city (if he’s now working remotely at his home in the suburbs) just  to see a show.  Broadway is in a precarious position right now.  

I’d love to see Oliver! successfully revived on Broadway.  And also enjoy a successful national tour. It’s one of the few great shows from what many call the Golden Age of Musicals that hasn’t been revived in the last 30 years.  It’s due.  We could use a big family musical like this.  

But in the mean time, I’m very glad I got see Encores’ revival.  It may not have been perfect, but its best moments were simply wonderful.  And I don’t take these shows for granted any more.


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1 Comment on On the Town with Chip Deffaa: Reflections on “Oliver!”, Revival and Broadway Economics

  1. Anonymous // May 24, 2023 at 6:14 pm // Reply

    Oh my god – a six hundred thousand word review of an Encores show? we get it – you like it! you love the actor playing Oliver and the character of Fagin is creepy.

    It is a problematic show with a great score, so it does not get produced. Pedophile lead, abused victim of a rapist singing how she “loves her man anyway”.
    We don’t need to see this show again, and definitely not on Broadway with 15 million dollars invested.

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