The Joy and Sadness of “Oliver!”

The cast of Oliver! Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures.

Presented by New Repertory Theatre
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Directed and Choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt
Music Direction by Sariva Goetz

December 2-29, 2019
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
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Review by Shiyanbade Animashaun

(Watertown, MA) From before this show began, I was in high spirits. En route to the theater, the soundtrack played in my mind. Once at the Mosesian Center for the Arts hall, surrounded by the gorgeous set, I paused – nervous about my ability to give an impartial review. I have fallen in love with and seen the 1968 movie rendition umpteenth times. I did not have much to worry about though, even as I anticipated lines, reacted to choreography or held my breath through differences between the stage version and screenplay.

The preshow moments started as usual. One could see the orchestra members through a set doorway. I noticed how the cartoonist building facades blended with the very real steps to an upper landing. A single book with the title “Oliver” lay on the floor. Then, to the delight of many, the cast emerged from behind the stage and mingled with the audience. In character, they bantered with and complimented audience members, asked us to silence our phones and mind the exits. Shortly, a cane thump from Andy Papas as Mr. Bumble, silenced us, for a time.

The director, Michael J. Bobbitt, gave a speech thanking every member of the production, many of whom were in the audience. We were asked to introduce ourselves to someone new and it felt like an ideological invitation to “Consider yourself at home,” so welcoming was the atmosphere.

The first number, “Food Glorious Food” began with aplomb and charm. Stomachs gripped in hunger; the Youth Ensemble, Jane Jakubowski, Michael Rodriguez, Jr., Rollanz “Rollie” Edwards Jr., Mark Johnson and Ian Freedson Falck, and sang about their hopes for more generous sustenance than gruel.

L-R: Ben Choi-Harris and Andy Papas in Oliver! Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures.

Still, the cast was joyful and endearing in their happiness. It was cemented in the illusion of snow provided by Jackson Jirard circling the stage with grace, using a handheld fan to waft handfuls of it on and around his cast members. Again further clarified in the inclusion of The Worm, performed by a member of the Youth Ensemble in an uproarious bar scene.

The story carries one through a mix of emotions: sadness, hopefulness, fear, and joy at the path Oliver takes. Ben Choi-Harris plays Oliver with grace, and we follow his progression from lonely orphan to ‘one of us’ over time. He grows from naive to bold in waves with some remission.

More complicated themes are explored in depictions of class, and the dynamics of a lopsided relationship between Nancy and Bill Sikes, played by Daisy Layman and Rashed Alnuaimi. Sydney Johnston’s turn as the Artful Dodger was captivating, and she took the lead in various dance performances.

The accent work was impressive though the thick cockney in songs could be difficult for some to understand.

The costume and wig work by Rachel Padula-Shufelt artfully aided the transformations of those who played dual roles. At one point I squinted at Shannon Lee Jones as Mrs. Bedwin, aware I knew her face, from her earlier role of Mrs. Sowerberry, but unable to place her.

Solo vocal performances by Alnuaimi, Layman, and Choi-Harris were gripping; with the emotions of “My Name”, “As Long As He Needs Me”, and “Where is Love?” transfixing the audience with trepidation, empathy, and sympathy respectively. With a cast of many vocal powerhouses, group numbers were also impressive. 

Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda delivered strong vocals in “I Shall Scream: as Widow Corney, as did Luis Negrón and Shannon Lee Jones in “That’s Your Funeral”, as Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry. Andy Papas was as playful in “I Shall Scream” as he was morose in “Boy for Sale”. Daniela Delahuerta was charming as the Sowerberry’s daughter, and an ensemble dancer.

After the intermission, complete with more cast interactions with the audience, my breath hitched when “Who Will Buy” began. I was curious to see and hear it’s overlapping lyrics, melodies, and dance numbers. It was sung by four people. It beautifully showcased Noura Deane, H.C. Lee, and Jackson Jirard’s singing voices for the first time. I was happy to see it return with greater accompaniment after a short scene. It was sans the dancing and wide shot afforded to a motion picture but full of beautiful melodies created by a mix of cast members, young and old.

Fagin, played by Austin Pendelton, showed his depth and shades, and caught moments of skipped words in his lines, by nimbly getting back on course. The choice to sporadically yell portions of  “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “Reviewing the Situation” was comical and singular in its unexpectedness, as was his almost ‘spoken word’ style of delivery.

Oliver is a story with depth and darkness that reads much differently to me in a world where #METOO exists. Nancy’s fate within an abusive relationship seems like a cautionary tale. As Bill Sikes darkness as a former pickpocket is for Oliver and the rest of Fagins’ gang of thieves. In the end, the all-ages audience receives a complex story served in a light and joyful manner and left to decide who gets what they deserve.

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