Review: "Oliver!" at Goodspeed Musicals

 Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle / ATCA

Director Rob Ruggiero appears to have a special place in his heart for Lionel Bart’s iconic musical, Oliver! Based on Charles Dickens’ classic Victorian novel, Oliver Twist, Mr. Ruggiero tells us what he feels the story is about in his director’s notes: “…the change that Oliver provokes comes from him simply being: his special connection to the people he meets stimulates change and action.” I would agree with his assessment; the role of Dickens’ title urchin does not require much acting beyond simple presence. Oliver is a catalyst for action taken by others, otherwise it would be a dull story of an orphan made legitimate through chance.

I’ll make it no secret that Oliver isn’t a show that I would go out of my way to see, mostly because children-focused shows aren’t my cup of tea. Unfortunately, the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food” reminded me why I bypass these types of musicals. The children are singing, dreaming of the different foods they long to eat, and I have no idea what those foods are because I didn’t understand the lyrics. Clear diction is Musical Theater 101 and I expect better from the young performers at the Goodspeed.

Luckily, the adult performers more than make up for the lackluster opening number. I had three standout performances on my mind as I left the theater. EJ Zimmerman is dynamite as Nancy; as soon as she walked out on the stage I knew she would give a performance that would wow me, and she did not disappoint. I like that Nancy doesn’t crack or cower. Her rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me” knocked me out; she provides us with a determined, bold Nancy throughout the production with little vulnerability. Donald Corren is a delightful, roguish Fagin who has the audience in the palm of his hand during “Reviewing the Situation” as well as the rest of the show. Brandon Andrus is terrifying as Bill Sikes; his voice rumbles during “My Name” and his very presence exudes wickedness.  

James Gray’s lively choreography is enjoyable and well-executed by the fine, talented ensemble.  Meant to be a large-scale musical, the Opera House provides an intimate space for this 1960s classic, which I always appreciate. Ruggiero uses clever staging, utilizing actors in multiple roles to give the appearance of a larger cast. With adept costume design (by Alejo Vietti) and wig/hair design (by Mark Adam Rampmeter), actors seamlessly switch between characters without distraction.

Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design is smart: a dual-level stone edifice with iron railings and stairs, reminiscent of an old English prison.  John Lasiter’s lighting design helps to create the appearance of various settings against Schweikardt’s stage composition.

There is plenty here to please Oliver fans, especially the adult performers, so don’t let my paedophobia in musicals stop you from attending Goodspeed Musicals’ latest offering.