By Debbie L. Hochberg, Correspondent
Take your seat, relax, and allow yourself to be transported to 19th century London for an entertaining holiday-season evening as the Paper Mill Playhouse presents the classic musical, “Oliver!”
Based on the Charles Dickens’ novel, “Oliver Twist,” the story tells the tale of a young orphan’s search for love and family in the unforgiving streets of Victorian London.
As the musical opens, we find ourselves in a dark, gloomy workhouse, but it is lit up by more than 20 adorable, shining faces of boys, the workhouse orphans — 16 of whom hail from New Jersey — singing and dancing to the familiar favorite, “Food, Glorious Food.”
As Oliver, wonderfully played by Tyler Moran, emerges from the group to approach the foreboding, yet somehow cartoonish Mr. Bumble, played by John Treacy Egan, you could hear a pin drop as the audience anticipates his famous line, “Please sir, I want some more.” Pandemonium breaks out as the orphans disperse and Mr. Bumble and his, also cartoonish, love interest/workhouse matron, Widow Corney, convincingly played by Jessica Sheridan, express their extreme dissatisfaction with Oliver’s request. “That boy was born to be hung!” says Mr. Bumble in his brilliant, booming baritone voice.
After we are treated to another fabulous familiar favorite, “Oliver,” — Ahleevuh, Ahleevuh — sung by Mr. Bumble, Widow Corney and the Workhouse Boys, we are left with Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney alone on the stage in a bizarre, low-brow flirtatious scene. Why that scene was thrown in to what is otherwise a classy, holiday family treat is beyond my comprehension.
In the next scene, Mr. Bumble appears parading Oliver through the streets of London, somberly chanting the haunting “Boy for sale, only seven guineas.” He sells Oliver to funeral-home owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, hilariously played by Michael Di Liberto, who expertly plays the ego-centric, idiotic Dr. Grimwig in the second act, and Dierdre Friel, who plays Old Sally in the second act. Di Liberto’s nervous and jerky body movements are a perfect counterpoint to the dominating presence of his wife who is clearly in charge of the funeral home, and Mr. Sowerberry. Friel is perfect as this character, who appears kind as she feeds Oliver but who then becomes evil incarnate — with a Wicked Witch of the West laugh — as she locks him in the dark funeral home to sleep amongst the coffins.
Our emotions are then further toyed with by Moran’s poignant and beautiful rendition of “Where is Love.”
The next morning, after Oliver escapes from the funeral home, the audience is in for a real treat as Oliver meets up with the Artful Dodger, artfully played by Ethan Haberfield, and together with the ensemble they sing and dance to a rousing, colorful version of the famous “Consider Yourself.” As they are in the commerce district of London, the ensemble consists of vendors with their carts, townspeople and chimney sweeps dancing with their sweeps, wearing wonderful period costumes, including some fun, sexy numbers for the ladies.
We are soon brought to the thieves’ kitchen, where we are introduced to the famous Master of Pickpockets himself, Fagin, played by David Garrison, best known for his role as Steven Rhoades on the hit television series “Married … with Children,” who is extraordinary in this role. Rhoades is the quintessential Fagin. The voice. The movements. The acting. He is the whole package. We truly enjoy ourselves as he leads his gang of boys, teaching Oliver how to be a thief in the song “Pick a Pocket or Two.” And his solo in the second act, “Reviewing the Situation,” as he strokes his precious box of stolen jewels, is a truly fine moment of singing and acting.
Similarly incredible in this production is Betsy Morgan, who plays Nancy. Somehow, although she is beautiful, she gives us that rough-around-the-edges beauty of a gal who has been around the block a few times and is the girlfriend of a hard, evil man. Her life has forced her to be tough, but in the end, her woman’s instinct and softness prevail to come to Oliver’s rescue, even if it means her eventual undoing. In case there are three people left in this world who do not know the story, that is all I will reveal about that. No spoilers here.
And Morgan’s singing and dancing are sublime. “I’d Do Anything” is frisky and fun and “Oom-Pah-Pah” is exhilarating and upbeat. But when Morgan belts out “As Long As He Needs Me,” we feel her emotion and possibly recall when we were in Love with the Wrong One, and we wish we could save her.
Jose Llana is perfectly dark, mean and brooding as Bill Sykes and the audience truly hates him, which was evident from the boos he received at curtain call — a testament to his acting abilities.
I will not reveal some of the holiday surprises at the end of the show; just suffice it to say that they are there and they are a lot of fun!
As a longtime fan of “Oliver!” beginning with the 1968 British musical movie which opened when I was 9 years old and was — and still is — a must-see, to the dark, Dickens classic novel, which I read as I was coming of age, to last year’s critically acclaimed production by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, I urge you to see the current production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, which is directed by Mark S. Hoebee, with original choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter and book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. The production runs through Dec. 29.