‘Oliver!’ Returns, With Darker Twists Intact
It was 10 a.m. on a recent morning in a rehearsal room at New York City Center, and nine boys scurried around the space, clutching parasols of red and white lace, tin cups and jaunty pocket squares.
“OK, everyone!” said Lorin Latarro, the choreographer of the show, a new staging of “Oliver!,” the Lionel Bart musical opening at City Center on Wednesday for a two-week run as part of the Encores! series. “Today we’re going to work on ‘I’d Do Anything.’”
The boys gathered around Raúl Esparza, who is playing Fagin, the lovable London crime lord, in a battered brown hat with a buckle, tan overcoat and black fingerless gloves.
“Would you risk the ‘drop’?” he sang, his eyes bugging as he grabbed his scarf and mimed a noose tightening around his neck. (Translation: Are you willing to go out and commit robbery and possibly face the gallows if you’re caught?) All nine pickpockets in training nodded enthusiastically.
“Oliver!,” based on the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist,” is the story of an orphan’s search for belonging in that band of young pickpockets in 1830s London. It mixes fun, candy-coated musical theater crowd-pleasers like “Food, Glorious Food” and “Consider Yourself” with darker Dickensian themes including poverty and domestic violence.
“The show has these really harrowing lyrics even in songs that are upbeat,” said the production’s director, Lear deBessonet. “And I think that in some productions, you may just be bobbing along with the rhythm of the song, and you might not really hear those words.”
But that’s generally not the case in the concert-like stagings that Encores! is known for. Although there is an orchestra onstage, props and sets are minimal.
“Because you strip away some of those other production elements, it really puts a new focus on the lyric,” deBessonet said. “It’s meaty work for me as a director to figure out how to tell the story with so few elements.”
When deBessonet, now in her third year as the artistic director of Encores!, was setting the season lineup in late 2021, just before the Omicron surge of Covid-19, she was struck by the parallels between the uncertain present and the perilous world of Dickens’s day.
“It’s interesting that ‘Oliver!’ is generally thought of as a family musical,” she said in a recent conversation in her office at City Center. “It certainly has these very winsome tunes, and the cast of children is delightful beyond measure, but there are dark edges of the story that we’re very much leaning into and exploring in this production.”
MANY OF THE SONGS FROM ‘OLIVER!’ have become well known, thanks to the popular 1968 film adaptation, which starred Ron Moody as Fagin. This crowd-pleasing musical is a staple of school stages across Britain, where it debuted in London’s West End in 1960, and the United States, where it opened on Broadway in 1963 and won three Tony Awards, including one for the score. But “Oliver!,” like many of the shows staged by Encores!, whose mission is to offer revivals of seldom-seen work, is rarely produced in full.
It hasn’t been professionally staged in its entirety on a New York City stage in nearly 40 years, since the short-lived 1984 Broadway revival that starred Patti LuPone as Nancy. In fact, neither deBessonet, nor any of the five main cast members except for Benjamin Pajak (“The Music Man”), who plays Oliver, had ever seen a live performance of the show.
In addition to Esparza (“Company”), the show also stars Lilli Cooper as Nancy, the romantic partner of the brutal Bill Sikes (Tam Mutu, recently of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”), and Julian Lerner, who plays the Artful Dodger, the leader of the gang that takes Oliver in.
Underscoring the musical’s darker bits, deBessonet said, like the fear and loneliness the orphaned Oliver experiences, was a matter of subtraction rather than addition. Without elaborate sets or showstopping production numbers there are fewer elements competing to divert the audience’s attention from the words of the actors.
But neither did the production need to amp up the grim with foreboding lighting or a fog machine, she said — the darkness is already inherent in Dickens’s text, and in Bart’s book, score and lyrics.
“We’re trying to have those words be heard with the belief that the complexity is in the lyric itself,” she said.
One example, she said, is the titular tune “Oliver!,” a song familiar to many, even those who haven’t seen the show, for its high-spirited chorus.
“It’s this really bouncy song,” deBessonet said, “but the actual lyrics are:
The show does preserve many of the musical’s more lighthearted elements. Every song from the original Broadway production remains, including bouncy numbers like “I’d Do Anything” and “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” The dreamlike sequence “Food, Glorious Food,” with its visions of sausages and mustards, jelly and custard. And 20 additional performers, all New York City public school students, will join the company onstage for “Consider Yourself,” the boys’ full-voiced embrace of Oliver into their ranks — the first true family he has known.
“The show is incredibly challenging — the domestic violence, the treatment of children at that time in general is truly harrowing,” deBessonet said. “And yet there’s this buoyant joy about these numbers.”
And the emotional core is still the camaraderie that springs up between the striving, working-class characters.
“The whole narrative question of the show is ‘Where is the love?’ and Fagin is one answer,” deBessonet said. “But it’s complicated.”
Even though the Fagin of the Bart musical is more of a lovable curmudgeon than the child-exploiting criminal in the Dickens novel, deBessonet and Esparza said that they wanted the audience to remain cognizant of the less-savory context of his mentorship.
“I fully believe Fagin loves those children, and he is exploiting them,” deBessonet said. “He’s sending them out to rob for him, to keep him alive, and he knows that every time he sends them out, there’s a possibility that they could get caught or killed.”
Less complex is Bill Sikes, who is objectively the show’s most loathsome character.
“Bill Sikes is a sociopath, and there is no end to his cruelty,” deBessonet said of Nancy’s abusive boyfriend. “The show ends with him murdering her brutally in front of us and in front of a kid.”
But Mutu knew he didn’t want to play a one-note villain. Instead he searched for the humanity within the character, to add nuances to his portrayal without offering redemption.
“People aren’t black and white,” he said. “There are levels to each of us. Yes, I am playing a sociopath who has violent tendencies —”
“— but he has redeeming qualities,” Esparza interjected. “Which are?”
They both laughed.
“The love between Nancy and Bill is genuine,” Mutu said, referring to their codependency as fascinating. “I’m trying to find the sense of the complexity of our relationship, which I think gets brushed under the carpet.”
Normally, deBessonet said, she would have no interest in doing a production that includes violence toward a woman — “I’ve already seen enough of that for a lifetime” — but she was impressed by Nancy’s bravery, how she risked everything to save the life of Oliver.
And Cooper and deBessonet said they wanted to make sure Nancy’s murder was not the final word on her story. “Her life is about her heroism and choosing to lay down her life to save this child who not too long ago was a stranger to her,” deBessonet said.
Though Nancy allows others to see her as a passive player in her own life, Cooper wanted her performance to underscore the power Nancy wields in moments like the “Oom-Pah-Pah” number, in which her lively and somewhat risqué dance is actually a means of distracting Bill Sikes and Fagin so she can help Oliver escape.
“She has this innate maternal nature to her,” Cooper said, “especially with all the boys in Fagin’s den and wanting to protect them. Even with Bill, the man that she loves, she feels needed by those who are wounded and fragile and need help.”
“She herself was a child thief, and she’s managed to grab hold of life with this force,” deBessonet said. “In the face of all that difficulty, she’s been able to say, ‘I’m still going to love life.”
BACK IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM, the boys continued their run-through of “I’d Do Anything.” Two stood on either side at the front, wielding red parasols, while two with white ones flanked them from behind. As the boys spun the parasols to imitate wheels, Nancy and the Artful Dodger walked to center.
“Would you climb a hill?” she sang, as the human “carriage” began to roll.
“Anything!” he responded.
“Wear a daffodil?”
He nodded. “Anything!”
“Leave me all your will?”
He nodded more vigorously. “Anything!”
“Even fight my Bill?” she asked pointedly.
He recoiled slightly.
“Stop!” Latarro called. She walked over to Lerner. “Bill Sikes is really tall and really scary — he’s like a boxer,” she said. “So you all jump back like ‘No way!’”
They tried again.
This time when Nancy asked, all nine pickpockets sprung back as though they had just realized they were standing on the third rail. Their eyes hardened.