Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - Dec. 2013

Reviewed by John Kenrick

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Oliver boys chorusYou will be hard pressed to find a more delightful way to welcome the holiday season than by catching Paper Mill's handsome revival of Oliver. Lavishly staged and lovingly sung, this production is everything fans of this classic musical could hope for, with plenty of heart and an avalanche of talent.

Oliver is that rarest of creatures, a world-class hit musical written entirely by one person. Lionel Bart ingeniously telescoped Charles Dickens' massive 1837 novel into a two hour format that retained all the emotional power, period atmosphere and humor that has made this story a favorite with generations of devoted readers. What is even more remarkable is that after 53 years, this show remains as entertaining as ever -- particularly when it gets a production that treats it with obvious affection.

From the moment the curtain rises on a stageful of workhouse boys pining for "Food, Glorious Food," director Mark S Hoebee sets things moving at an energetic but seemingly effortless pace. Mark Morton's sets and Amanda Seymour's costumes evoke the contrasting poverty and wealth of Dickensian London, and musical director Craig Barna kept the musical performances crisp and exciting. Special praise goes to Joann M. Hunter for the best choreography I've ever seen anywhere this season -- in particular, her dances made "Consider Yourself" and the rowdy "Oom-Pah-Pah" major audience pleasers.

OliverThe title character is often a casting challenge. Aside from his youth, Oliver has to hold an audience's interest despite the fact that he actually has very little to do (just one solo and a few ensembles), while so many memorable moments belong to others. Tyler Moran proves an excellent choice, singing with real emotion and never falling victim to terminal cuteness. I'm sure he takes at least some inspiration from the energetic platoon of boys sharing the stage with him as orphans and pickpockets -- each one clearly capable of stealing a scene if given half a chance. Small wonder that these kids won some genuine cheers on opening night.

Ethan Habersfield is excellent as the crafty Artful Dodger, John Treacy Egan soars vocally as the officious Mr. Bumble, and Betsy Morgan is a dramatic and musical powerhouse as Nancy -- her renditions of "As Long As He Needs Me" are nothing less than sensational. Broadway and TV veteran David Garrison is a total joy as Fagin, mastering this character's complex blend of comedy, criminality and seemingly genuine affection for the boys he trains to be pickpockets. Garrison made "Reviewing the Situation" a comic delight, and by the time he makes his final exit, he carries off the audience's hearts with him.

Oliver 2013Amid so many fine performances, it is strange that the characters in Mr. Sowerberry's funeral parlor are depicted in a cartoonish, brash, over-the-top style -- a jarring and unwelcome departure. I have seen many productions of Oliver, and can affirm that these characters are most effective when played straight.

But one scene cannot stop this overwhelmingly enjoyable Oliver from being a real holiday treat -- very highly recommended!

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