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Tuneful ‘Oliver!’ Lightens Grim Undertone of Dickens’ Novel

Liz Keill

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 • 6:00am

MILLBURN, NJ – The large, talented cast of “Oliver!” lifts the Paper Mill Playhouse production above the grim reality of orphanages, the underworld and corruption.

Mark Morton’s scenic design and E. Mitchell Dana’s lighting cannily re-imagine the dark and dreary workhouse, the streets of London in the 1800s and the thieves’ grimy kitchen and underground hangout. Beyond it all rises the dome of, perhps, St. Paul’s Cathedral, with shadows of dawn and darkness.

Lionel Bart’s music, lyrics and book bring zest and poignancy to this tale. It’s certainly condensed from Charles Dickens’ novel, “Oliver Twist” with its exposure of the ill treatment of orphans and the underclass.

Mark S. Hoebee has directed a colorful cast of characters. Tyler Moran plays the indomitable Oliver, who is sold from the workhouse to the Sowerberry’s funeral home. He is then taken by The Artful Dodger (Ethan Haberfield) to be part of Fagin’s gang of pickpockets. Oliver is learning just how to rob someone, when he is caught by a gentleman, Mr. Brownlow. But rather than turning him over to the police, he takes Oliver into his home.

The intricate plot continues, as Nancy, played by Betsy Morgan, tries to save the lad from the nasty Bill Sikes (Jose Llana.)  But Nancy is in love with Sikes and delivers the blockbuster, “As Long as he needs Me.”.

Moran as Oliver has wonderful, wistful moments with “Where is Love?” before that song, too, becomes an over-the-top show stopper. Barbara Marineau as the housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin, delivers an appealing rendition of the same song in Act II.

Still, the best number in the production is “Consider Yourself,” which gleefully sends up the sense of camaraderie, even in dire circumstances. Joann M. Hunter’s choreography is a joy to behold, repeated again in Act II with “Who Will Buy?” as street criers, mimes and others join in the street scene.

Among the 49-member cast are a raft of children, who start the show off with “Food, Glorious Food.” Their timing in eating their gruel, with wooden spoons tapping, is priceless.

David Garrison is a sly, believable Fagin, who runs the gang of pickpockets. His “Reviewing the Situation” has clever lyrics and he delivers the number with verve. The Bumbles, who run the orphanage, contribute silliness with “I Shall Scream” and “Boy for Sale.”  John Treacy Egan and Jessica Sheridan demonstrate just how quickly passion can turn to annoyance once they’re married. Then we have the Sowerberrys, played by Michael Di Liberto and Dierdre Friel.  It’s amazing that Oliver survives this unseemly mix.

Amanda Seymour’s costume designs are amazing, from the ruffled, flouncing skirts of the prostitutes to Fagan’s faded dressing gown to the well-dressed gentleman, Mr. Brownlow, played with kindness by David Hess.

In other words, “Oliver!” has just about everything you could hope for in a musical. The early scenes have a somewhat mechanical feel, perhaps because hunger is a very real issue in our country and the world, so singing about it makes it a little hard to digest.

Still, for the holidays, Dickens’ story of hope in the midst of squalor rings true.  And it’s a refreshing change from all those area productions of “A Christmas Carol.” Performances of “Oliver!” continue at the Paper Mill Playhouse at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn through Dec. 29. For tickets, call 973-315-4343 or visit PaperMill.org. 

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