Oliver Twist and company have returned to town -- do they ever leave? -- in a sumptuous new production at the Fox Theatre. After the opening-night performance of Oliver!, as the contented audience filed out into the frigid night, a woman turned to her companion and asked, "Do you think Charles Dickens would recognize this show?" "Probably not," the friend replied, "but wasn't it well done?"
For the most part, it was very well done indeed.
As most everyone knows, Oliver! is a cheerful if simplistic adaptation of Dickens' 1838 novel about the travails of a starving orphan in Victorian England. For the stage, Dickens' dense plot has been as watered down as the gruel that's served to the workhouse waifs in scene one. You can't even describe Oliver! as the CliffsNotes edition; Lionel Bart's musical is more akin to a Classics Illustrated comic-book version with more than a few pages torn out.
But then, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that composer-lyricist-author Bart never even opened Dickens' novel. Bart's Oliver! is actually a direct lift from the exquisite 1948 movie adaptation. In transferring the 400-page novel into a two-hour film, director-screenwriter David Lean made hard choices about which plot elements to save and which to lose. It was Lean who threaded the multiple plotlines into one continuing narrative. Bart followed Lean's lead with almost plagiaristic faithfulness, while paring away still more plot to make space for the now-familiar songs. Although time has turned those songs ("I'd Do Anything," "As Long As He Needs Me") into a veritable medley of hits, the unsung hero of this current production is set designer Adrian Vaux. For 40 years now, nearly every Oliver! designer has been influenced by Sean Kenny's original massive unit set. Not so Vaux. This rendition flows. And it's Vaux's fluid scenic design, imaginatively lit by Jenny Kagan, that keeps the evening moving.
In the title role, Justin S. Pereira is a winsome charmer. The lad who played Oliver in the initial 1963 Broadway production received eleventh billing. Pereira has leapfrogged up to fourth place, and he should be in first, for he's the evening's star. He is ably abetted by Andrew Blau, who brings assured zest to the Artful Dodger. In fact, this production belongs to the kids; it's the adults who strike the only false chords. As the doomed Nancy, Renata Reneé Wilson hits the high notes but has not yet found her character's poignancy.
Mark McCracken's Fagin is simply mystifying. Ever since Dickens' novel was published, the villain he called "the Jew" has been a source of controversy. McCracken's Fagin finds the character's suave airs but ignores any sense of menace. This Fagin is a patrician, and a dull one at that. As performed here, Fagin's usually show-stopping "Reviewing the Situation" seems even longer than Tevye's "If I Were a Rich Man" in Fiddler on the Roof. It remains for the evening's more colorful caricatures -- Jimmy Flannery's dour Mr. Sowerberry, Ken Clement's pompous Mr. Bumble, Gwen Eyster's Widow Corney -- to keep the tale moving.
Yet this wan Fagin returns one to that earlier question: Would Charles Dickens recognize the show? Perhaps not; the terminally cheerful Oliver! is a pale carbon copy of its source material. But as this exuberant ensemble pile-drives its way through ebullient production numbers like "Who Will Buy?" and "Consider Yourself," even Dickens would be hard-pressed to keep from tapping his toes and humming along.
Which comes as somewhat of a surprise, considering that this is yet another non-Equity production. It may be that most theatergoers don't care whether a production has hired performers and stage managers who are members of the actors' union; it may be that theatergoers just want to see a good show. But in fact, past non-Equity offerings at the Fox were not good. Last season's threadbare Music Man deprived patrons of value for their dollar. By happy contrast, this Oliver! is a beguiling spectacle.
Correction published 3/3/04: In the original version of this story, we mistakenly characterized Starlight Express as a non-Equity production. The above version reflects the corrected text.