Friday, May 13, 2011


Tonight, I saw Oliver! at the Gallery Players. The last time I saw it on stage was in the gym of a Catholic girls high school when I was a teenager. I remember it being endless. This production moved lightning fast, to the point where I suspect that Tams-Witmark has trimmed the book. I don't think musicals circa 1960 moved that fast. I grew up with the Broadway album, so I do know the songs well.
In the Gallery Players production, Neal J. Freeman's direction and Josie Bray's choreography were good and unobtrusive. The stand outs among the actors are Stacie Bono as Nancy (she's got a great belt, too), Greg Horton as Mr. Bumble (if you can imagine Paul Giamatti not being schticky and/or fussy) and Dominic Cuskern as Fagin (this Fagin loves his boys, but perhaps he loves his money a wee bit more; his rendition of "Reviewing the Situation" stopped the audience dead in their tracks).
And frankly it was refreshing to hear a pre-Webber, pre-Claude-Michel Schoenberg (guy who wrote Les Miz) musical. It's a great story. There are actual second verses. It was not amplified out of existence, and for the most part, the balance between the orchestra and the singers was okay. There are songs that drive the story and make sense for the characters to sing; none of it sounds like a rip-off of Puccini. And the comic songs are funny because they come out of character, not because they're clever (imagine!).
I grew up in a house where Dickens was revered (well, not by my mother but the rest of us felt that way). My father spent some evenings for a few years reading "A Christmas Carol" to us. You get a much better sense of the ghost story aspect of it when you read it or hear it read. When I was in college, I took a great English novel class at Amherst taught by a man named Bill Pemberton (no idea where he is these days). We read the first and final novels of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot (who I developed an appreciation for), and Dickens. Dickens' first novel was Oliver Twist (unless you think the Pickwick Papers is a classic novel, and I agree with Pemberton on this, not so much). And I guess when I think of Oliver, I think of the novel (which is fairly short and very stark- nearly as stark as Hard Times) and the 1948 movie directed by David Lean. DIckens is relentless in his characterization of Fagin as "the Jew," to the point where he felt so guilty after the novel was published, Dickens never wrote another negative, stereotypical Jewish character. What's astonishing to me about the Lean film is Alec Guinness' characterization of Fagin. I love Guinness as an actor. The man was a genius. What he is able to do with Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (with not much screen time) is amazing. In Captain's Paradise (I keep waiting for someone to remake that), you still love his character, despite the fact that he's cheating on his wife with his mistress and visa versa. But Fagin (and I assume some of the credit for this goes to Lean) is the Jewish stereotype writ large: the gabardine, the stroking of the coins in his hands, the hooked nose, etc. And it's a shame, because the rest of the movie is wonderful. And from my perspective, not a little shocking a mere three years after the Nazi gas chambers were operating.

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