Sometimes the best presents come in plain, brown wrapping. Such is the case with the many pleasures afforded to audiences by Trinity Rep’s stirring and soulful production of “Oliver!” Lionel Bart’s popular and successful musical adaptation of the Dickens tale is presented here in a bare rags and bones style that is both essential and accessible; subject matter and audiences are well served by a rousing show that is neither too glum nor too glib but is instead gritty and gutsy, acknowledging the truth of young Oliver’s plight, just as Dickens intended, while still delivering great entertainment for all.
That’s no mean feat, considerable credit must be given to Richard and Sharon Jenkins who have deftly directed and choreographed the production. All is artful and nothing is dodged; our author’s intentions are faithfully maintained and as the treacle has been siphoned off both the naturally sweet and serious essence remains. This is a thrilling and eminently satisfying show.
The story of “Oliver!” needs no introduction here. The musical has been a big hit since the 60’s and Dickens’s early novel, only his second, is a classic, a perennial favorite ever since it appeared in 1837. Such was its popularity that the story of the plucky orphan enduring the appalling conditions of the orphanages and workhouses of Victorian times actually effected great social change; laws were changed to protect the welfare of the young because of this book, proving that art can be just as effective, if not more so, than the efforts of politicians.
So it is appropriate that we meet our ensemble of orphans singing their anthem “Food, Glorious Food” amidst the wonderfully ramshackle wooden set of Eugene Lee in front of a banner that reads: “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”, the song still soars from the mouths of the great bunch of kids in these roles, the underlying seriousness of their situation remains intact. This sets the tone for the lean stripped-down aesthetic of this show, a fact reflected in the small musical combo that wonderfully constitutes the orchestra in a production that is so utilitarian that it actually recycles the set from that other Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”
This inventive and organic approach of Director Richard Jenkins serves the source material very well and this show remains true to both the novel and Lionel Bart’s rousing musical. Throughout his onstage adventures young Oliver Twist proves to be a catalyst of events and is akin to a placid and adorable eye of the hurricane as scenes from a wide array of a tumultuous Victorian society swirl around him. What Director Jenkins does so effectively here is to highlight the very deep needs of all these characters we encounter, a need for food, gold, survival, love and all the great and small pleasures that constitutes living.
He is very well aided in this endeavor by Sharon Jenkins whose deftly nimble and nearly minimalist choreography serves the story and show by seeming to spring forth as a natural extension of the character’s actions rather than as a show biz construction thrust upon it.
The songs by Lionel Bart remain as Music Hall cheery and tuneful as you remember (though thankfully the awful number “I shall scream” has been cut) and hold up remarkably well in their ability to tell the story, move the action along and illuminate the character’s interior lives.
And these swell songs are belted out with bravado by the talented ensemble at Trinity Rep. First and foremost I am happy to report that, just as one cannot stage an excellent production of “Hamlet” without a decent actor playing the title role, young Phineas Peters is a wonderful Oliver, he’s simply so sweet, soulful and, most essentially, self aware in the role. He is well matched for sheer stage presence by Noah Parets who shines brightly as The Artful Dodger. Not only can this kid dance up a storm but he can deliver his dialogue with true authority, being just as wildly funny or as deadly earnest as he needs to be in the given situation. All of the children onstage here, too many to name individually, are absolutely crackerjack and work together at all times as an effective and cohesive unit.
The adults in this ensemble shine brightly as well. The wonderful Rachael Warren is magnificent as Nancy and she pulls no punches here as she portrays the prostitute with pure panache and manages as well to be warmly maternal and absolutely fun loving. She brings a sense of self-awareness to the role that is emblematic of the needs of this production. It is not only utterly appropriate that she begins perhaps the ultimate doormat ballad “As Long as He Needs Me” from a prone position on the floor, having been knocked down there by her lover Bill Sikes, but the actress pulls this off with a sense of sheer defiance that is absolutely thrilling. She dares us to accept and understand her and we do and love her as well.
Stephen Berenson’s wizened Fagin is a delight as well, he not only has considerable singing chops to add to his wily charm but his petulant, cranky and mannered manner makes him seem like an overgrown kid, an older and ultimate version of the young ragamuffins he teaches to pick pockets.
As Mr. Brownlow, Stephen Thorne imbues the role with his well honed sense of sheer decency. Tom Gleadow and Anne Scurria play a pair of nasty delights as Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney. Timothy John Smith is truly fearsome as a big and burly Bill Sikes.
Younger actors in this ensemble play a variety of roles with great verve and Erick Pinnick and Lauren Gemelli stand out as a somewhat lustily charged Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry who seem here to have come straight from an Edward Gorey illustration.
Director Richard Jenkins, is, of course, an Academy Award nominated Actor who not only was a company member at Trinity back in the day but, as Artistic Director from 1990 to 1994 saved this beloved cultural institution from certain ruin. He has helmed this production of “Oliver!” with that same great care creating a musical experience here that is absolutely entertaining and, as it takes the story and source material quite seriously, ultimately uplifting and truly joyous. Thanks to him you can consider yourself lucky to have both Trinity Rep and this great show in town.
“Oliver!” at Trinity Repertory Company now through March 30, see listings for details.