ESSEX — Goodspeed Musical’s current production of “Oliver!,” running through Sept. 13, will certainly please those seeking an evening of rollicking songs and dances. But director Rob Ruggiero has softened what he himself calls, in his director’s notes, the “raw,” “dismal,” and “criminal” aspects of this story so that the pathos of the titular character and the dread driving of the plot are nearly lost.
Lionel Bart’s musical version of Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist” is a problem piece, just as we consider certain Shakespearian works problem plays. Over-stuffed with humorous, bouncy songs, and centering on a title character who is mainly passive, Bart has created a challenge for any director taking on Dickens’ essentially dark story.
Oliver’s life is one of narrow escapes and painful loneliness. Evicted from the workhouse at age 9, he meets the Artful Dodger, an expert child thief, who lures him to Fagin’s den of youths, who are by turns coaxed and terrorized by a man who thinks nothing of training them to pick pockets for him in exchange for what he euphemistically calls “accommodations”: dirty rags for beds and just enough food to keep them coming back to the only home they know.
Brightening Oliver’s existence is Nancy, a kind young woman who has been working for Fagin since she was a tiny child. Nancy bonds with the young boys—and especially with Oliver—and uses her considerable bravado to keep all of their spirits up in songs like “It’s a Fine Life” and “I’d Do Anything.” However, Nancy loves the abusive and villainous Bill Sikes, and her conflict between helping Oliver without defying Bill drives the second act.
Ruggiero’s casting of Oliver is one of this production’s problems. While Elijah Rayman looks appropriately wan and angelic, his voice is too nasal to carry his major songs: “Where is Love” and “Who Will Buy.” Oliver is more acted on than active, but Ruggiero hasn’t helped Rayman find the magnetism or energy that draws so many characters to him.
In his directing of Donald Corren, as Fagin, Ruggiero decisively distorts the production’s tone. Corren is a charismatic, gifted actor with a terrific voice. However, under Ruggiero, his Fagin is nearly all humor and charm, with only the slightest hint of menace. Fagin’s true character — both in the novel and the musical — is the reverse. He is an expert at acting the benevolent guardian and teacher (“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Be Back Soon”), and he seems to have a soft spot for Nancy; but just below the surface lies a villain who cares for nothing but his money.
The danger he poses is clear on Oliver’s first night. As Fagin delights in his secret store of jewels, Oliver wakes up and sees him. Fagin’s reaction should be that of a viper ready to strike. Instead, Corren’s Fagin appears eager to believe Oliver’s frightened denial. By removing the real danger from the moment, Ruggiero removes the very real danger in Fagin himself.
During “Reviewing the Situation,” in which Fagin wonders whether he should always remain a villain, Ruggiero makes an utterly perplexing choice by positioning a fiddler on the platform above main stage. Immediately we are in the world of the other famous Jewish character in musical theater: Tevye, in “A Fiddler on the Roof.” The two have only their ethnicity in common, so the connection is disconcerting, at best.
In terms of successes, the show comes alive when we meet the Artful Dodger, played by a remarkably charismatic Gavin Swartz. EJ Zimmerman gives Nancy gaiety, strength, and heart-breaking vulnerability in perfect measure, and her voice is beautiful without losing the reality of the character, which is not always true of actors in this role. Brandon Andrus’ Bill Sikes is terrifying, and Miranda Gelch is equally convincing double-cast as a wicked slattern and as Nancy’s loving sister, Bet: a small tour de force.
James Gray’s energetic choreography makes the most of the Goodspeed’s small stage, and though Michael Schweikardt’s box-like scenic design loses opportunities for dynamism; its metallic grays, lit beautifully by John Lasiter, help to create London’s threatening gloom.
This production clearly chooses the light over the darkness in Bart’s “Oliver!,” but those who love the music above all will consider themselves at home.