Bobbitt’s ‘Oliver!’ makes for strong New Rep debut

The cast of the New Repertory Theatre production of “Oliver!” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN – Charles Dickens was a master storyteller who celebrated the abilities of his characters to overcome extreme adversity and emerge triumphant in the end.

The best example might be his novel “Oliver Twist,” the darker-than-dark story of an abused orphan in a workhouse in 1850 London who escapes that fate, only to fall into the clutches of a master thief and a gang of young thieves, finding good fortune finally in a loving home, only to be snatched out of that home by a vicious killer who threatens his life.

Hardly the subject of an uplifting holiday family musical, you say? You would be wrong. The Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!” at the New Repertory Theatre celebrates the spirit of that plucky orphan, who – spoiler alert – emerges triumphant.

 Director/Choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt, the New Rep’s artistic director, has embraced the darkness and in the program notes that he has intentionally incorporated snippets from masters of darkness such as Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket and Edmund Gorey.

“Oliver!” boasts some of the most glorious production numbers in musical theater history, most springing from some of the darkest events in the show. They include: “Food, Glorious Food”; “Consider Yourself”; “It’s a Fine Life”; “I’d Do Anything”; the saloon song “Oom-Pah-Pah”; and “Who Will Buy?”

Andy Papas and Ben Choi-Harris in “Oliver!” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Bobbitt dons his choreographer hat and handles them with aplomb, thanks to a diverse, talented cast of just 17, by far the smallest cast I’ve seen perform the show.  Except for a couple of the principals, that means everyone else in the cast is all in on every production number.

Luckily, that includes members of the New Rep’s Youth Ensemble, which is well represented by  Rollanz “Rollie” Edwards Jr.,  Ian Freedson Falck, Jane Jakubowski, Mark Johnson, and Michael Rodriguez, Jr.

As Oliver Twist, young Ben Choi-Harris is a proven commodity, garnering two IRNE nominations for past performances and stealing scenes from veteran pros in the process. He has the requisite angelic voice and stage presence to put across “Where is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?”

The elephant in the room in any production of “Oliver!” is the portrayal of Fagin, the thief who holds sway over Oliver, the Artful Dodger (Sydney Johnston) and their cohorts.  In the Dickens book, he is most certainly described as “a Jew” but in the musical, creator Lionel Bart, himself Jewish, downplayed that aspect of the character.   

The veteran Austin Pendleton, who has worked at the New Rep times as both a performer and director, portrays him pretty much down the middle, without the long flowing beard. Still, his klezmer-flavored musical numbers (“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,”  “Reviewing the Situation”) obviously add a certain ethnic flavor.

Bobbitt relies on some solid pros in key character parts.  Andy Papas is Mr. Bumble, the workhouse official who cozies up to the earthy Widow Corney (Johanna Carlisle Zepeda) and literally sells the misbehaving Oliver to undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Luis Negron) as an apprentice. Mrs. Sowerberry (Shannon Lee Jones) feeds the young boy table scraps and forces him to sleep with the corpses.

Oliver runs afoul of Noah Claypoole (Jackson Jirard), who insults the mother who gave Oliver up for adoption, and Oliver attacks, sending the bully running for cover.   

On the run, Oliver is befriended by the Artful Dodger, a crafty young pickpocket, who  recruits the hungry, homeless Oliver to join Fagin’s den of thieves.

Bobbitt has cast some emerging young talent in key roles, most notably Daisy Layman as Nancy, who aces the show’s signature ballad, “As Long as he Needs Me.” It’s beautiful but one of the stranger songs in the score, sung by a woman who has spent years being beaten and abused by boyfriend Bill Sikes, but won’t betray him in the end.

Sikes, one of the meanest, nastiest villains in English language literature, is capably and menacingly performed by Rashed Alnuaimi , a native of Dubai and a master’s candidate at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.  

There’s also strong supporting efforts from Danuela Delahuerta (Bet/Charlotte) and ensemble members  H.C. Lee, and Noura Deane. Bobbitt did himself a favor by cashiering the character of Bullseye, Sikes’ dog, a creature just as nasty as his master.

The Mosesian Center for the Arts is one of the most beautiful facilities in the Greater Boston area, boasting stadium seating with superb sightlines, a great sound system and an expansive stage area. It simply isn’t the ideal venue for a musical. There is no orchestra pit, so the musicians are usually onstage – as they are for this production – or, in a few cases, hidden backstage with the sound piped out to the audience.

Neither is ideal, but in this case a small but energetic orchestra led by Sarah Goetz is suitable for the size of the theater and gets the job done.

Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s lovely costumes include fashionable matching outfits among the young ensemble members, menacing duds for Sikes and some form-fitting outfits for the ladies.

There is no one credited for wigs, makeup, etc., and this group in general needs to get dirtier all around. Folks didn’t have access to good grooming in 1850s London, and Sikes, Fagin, and the street urchins, in particular, could all stand to be a bit dirtier and grimier in their appearance.

Bobbitt has made a strong first impression as a director/choreographer with this “Oliver!” although the rather dark take might some of the gleam off those glorious production numbers. Oliver’s ultimate triumph, however, sends everyone away happy.

The New Repertory Company production of “Oliver!” Book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Directed and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Scenic design by Luciana Stecconi. Lighting design by Frank Meissner. Sound design by Kevin L. Alexander. Costume design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt. At the Mosesian Center for the Arts through Dec.

Austin Pendleton, center as Fagin and the cast of “Oliver!’ Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures