“Oliver” is a popular choice these days. Music Mountain theater again is getting ahead of Broadway and Los Angeles revivals. It recently did “A Secret Garden,” which is in L.A. currently and “Oliver” is coming to NY CityCenter.
“The play’s the thing” and MMT is recognizing musicals whose time has come again and need to be revisited, as are a couple of the most respected East and West Coast venues. In the case of “Oliver,” we are living in a time when we worry about our kids on multiple levels. Children who have been put in cages a couple of years ago at our southern border. And now children who have been taken away from their parents in Ukraine and brought to Russia under a strikingly ugly edict
“Oliver” is a dark tale by Charles Dicken. It was given a less stark vision when it became a musical and the musical became a movie. The orphanages, the workhouse system, the homeless, the dirty, the underclass, the criminals, the depraved…are all in the novel. The character of Fagin was called Fagin the Jew, in the novel originally. It was revised in later editions when Dickens was confronted by a Jewish family, specifically Mrs. Elizabeth Davis. who had bought his home in Tavistock Square in London in 1863. But even without saying Fagin the Jew, it is evident that the character is Jewish and his portrayal in the book couldn’t be more taken from a bigot’s playbook.
The musical remains the story of young orphan Oliver Twist gone from workhouse kid to being a pickpocket under an unscrupulous older man who traffics in using orphans to steal. In the end, of course, Oliver’s story is one of escape and redemption. At least for Oliver. However, the issue of child abuse, poverty and the hard life of the underclass is the point.
From the first scene, MMT and director Anna Hentz and cast get it right and your heart breaks. The ensemble is amazing. The children are so talented and act & sing their hearts out. “All we ever get is gruel” bemoans the boys in the workhouse. When one, who is obviously starving, asks for more, he is punished. That boy is Oliver (Note: there are alternating casts. I saw it with Rothe Ripley). Mr. Ripley is an outstanding Oliver. He is vulnerable and charming with a Vienna Boys Choir voice that is just perfect for Oliver. I raved about him previously as extraordinary, when I saw him as Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” at MMT in November. He is very talented and definitely someone to watch. This role is double cast. Kudos to Asher Hyland, who I am told is equally fine in the role.
Sky Carter, in my production, was The Artful Dodger. He also played Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” but in 2018. (Is this a “rite of passage?”) Carter is a fine actor and nails Dodger’s persona, though physically he goes against type. The novel describes him: "He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes." Carter is a handsome lad but his acting chops and musical comedy skills are evident. For alternatet weekends, if you have been to MMT recently, you have seen Gavin Prikril. Prikril is a natural talent and no doubt is equally fine.
Fagin is veteran Music Mountain actor David Whiteman. His portrayal is Anglicized. Fagin’s issue is really poverty and trying to find a way to survive in the underclass of London. His being Jewish was a criticism of Dickens for playing into tropes of the time. A less Jewish Fagin, whatever that means, is undoubtedly, a good thing. In the cheerier version given in the musical, Whiteman is a charming scoundrel. And, in that, he is enjoyable. There is room, in the performance though to find more moments to portray him physically as underclass and damaged. He is as bad as Scrooge, which Whiteman yearly gives the definitive performance of. He is, in fact, worse than a legitimate, heartless businessman. He misuses and abuses children. That ugliness should be seen and felt externally and internally. Whiteman is a charming man and that is an ingredient that propels his “I’d Do Anything,” “Pick a Pocket” and “Reviewing the Situation..” Along with great choreographed staging by Jaimie Geddes.
A star performance that just wows is given by Rachel Fingles as Nancy. She just gets better and better each time she is seen on stage. This role is perfect for her. Her rousing “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-pah-pah” that tries to uplift the spirits of all the have-nots is astoundingly good. For those in the audience who may feel downtrodden by life, this Nancy and her joy and her songs is the remedy. Her “As Long as He Needs Me” is a 180 on the emotions from the other songs. She is moving and 100% on point.
Eric Snyder has done some very fine work on stage at MMT, including Capt. Von Trapp in “Sound of Music.´Polar opposite of that is Bill Sikes and Snyder could not be any better. He is menacing and real. He is alpha male and pitbull. You do not cross this man. He breathes danger. Snyder’s acting nailed it. Great performance. Jonathan Wierzbicki and Veronica Slade were a fun Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney. Equally fine, on the upscale side of town, were Bill Weir as Mr. Brownlaw and Reginal Mercadante as Mrs. Bedwin. Asher Mendelssohn (Gary Carter alternate actor on different weekends) exuded the wide-eyed naivete of Charley Bates.
Big shout out to Mike Prikril and Jen Hsiao who found so much fun in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, the undertakers to whom Oliver was to be a servant. At first, I did not recognize Prikril, who I have seen do many roles. Exceptionally well done. Kudos. Another shout out to Kyle Binkley as Noah Claypole, an older servant to the Sowerberry’s. He is somewhere between older boy and young man, in love with Charlotte (Emma Sneddon). He is funny, agile, the right combination of acting and physical comedy. A small role but he made it a good one and noticeable.
Anna Hentz is a wonderful director, as would be noted by anyone who saw “Matilda” last year. She is great with large casts and with children. Another huge win for Ms. Hentz.
Go to the show and glory in the many good performances and, most importantly, since “the play’s the thing”, be moved by the issue of child abuse, poverty, the underclass and the homeless.
Music Mountain Theatre has thoughtfully provided people at the door for you to give to “A Woman’s Place,” a nonprofit that is a refuge for abused women and children.
The show continues to April 9th. Tickets are available at for Oliver in Lambertville from ShowClix.
PHOTOS BY JOHN POSADA & SUZANNE SLADE