MADISON, NJ – Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” as adapted by Neil Bartlett, brings the dark, dreary, streets of London to life.
The production at The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, directed by Brian B. Crowe, adheres closely to the novel. Yet this translation seems too abortive for the long tale of Oliver’s time in a workhouse, experiences with Fagan’s boy thieves and eventual discovery by his grandfather. While the musical “Oliver!” captured those sentiments, it was more accessible in conveying the emotional twists (no pun intended) and turns. Or perhaps it was Lional Bart's music and lyrics that lent a lighter note and tended to make the experience somewhat less grim. Crowe has said that the Bartlett adaptation includes “much of the nasty underbelly of Dickens’ novel which is typically lost in other adaptations.”
Every now and then, a fiddle plays or the cast bursts into song. At one point Andy Paterson, as the thief Charley Bates, has shades of Kurt Weill or Jacques Brel. You’re suddenly transported into a different, more appealing, realm. But the moment doesn’t last.
Certainly the 13 actors in this production are prime. Ames Adamson is the corrupt, calculating Fagin, conveying the slime and sinewy character of a man intent on making money, mostly through the efforts of the young boys he’s collected along the way. Jeffrey M. Bender is Bill Sikes, the nasty heartthrob of Nancy. Bender plays a double role in this production, first as Mrs. Sowerbery, displaying his versatility in both roles. Corey Tazmania is his street-wise love interest, Nancy, who does her best to keep Oliver safe while trying to save her own life.
Then we have Eric Hoffmann as the conniving Mr. Bumble.and Tina Stafford as Mrs. Corney, matron of the workhouse. She’s handy with an accordion, but heartless in her severe treatment of the boys. Robbie Colllier Sublett as the Artful Dodger makes an impact as well.
At the center of it all is Oliver, played by Quentin McCusiton. He has the innocence to convey the spirit of Oliver, but he is hardly a 10 or 12-year-old boy. The others in the gang of thieves are not that young either. As a result, the story loses much of its punch, which centers on the treatment of vulnerable children.
Act II picks up in terms of energy and intensity. But all in all, the play seems strained in condensing Dickens’ novel of greed, corruption, and life on the streets of London.
Even the set by Brian J. Ruuggaber has awkward elements. A lowered doorway at one side of the stage, where actors must stoop to go in or out, is fine for the underground street life. But when the so-called upper class must use the same exit, the illusion is shattered. Costumes by Nancy Leary and lighting by Andrew Hungerford effectively reflect the Victorian period.
Nevertheless, for lovers of Dickens, this adaptation by Bartlett, performed by a solid cast of pros, will still have plenty of appeal.
“Oliver Twist” continues at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University in Madison, through Oct. 7. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org.