By Bill Hirschman
It’s virtually a given that the majority of work presented by the Maltz Jupiter Theatre is reliably solid and entertaining, especially how it usually exudes an inexplicably fresh feel to even the most well-worn classic Broadway musicals.
So it’s expected that their current mounting of Oliver! would be a tuneful, well-executed evening. But those mild adjectives would not begin to do this justice to a benchmark for this company.
This easily scores as a vibrant celebration brimming with life, lovingly delivered with talent and skill wrapped in joy.
The Maltz has spared little reviving this 1960 edition of Dickens’ 1838 novel: 18 laudable Equity actors, 14 children surprisingly melded into a whole, an unassailably capable director-choreographer and musical director, at least 10 hard-working crew members and kid wranglers, a superb 12-piece orchestra producing a glorious score from their marrow, scores of costumes from filthy rags to middle-class garb, a kaleidoscope of mood-setting lighting for a dozen locations, and redolent settings of grime and wealth backed up by digital backdrops.
And beyond the inescapably outstanding performance by one actress (we’ll come back to that), all these pieces flow together in the magic of what classic musical theater can be.
If you’ve only seen the fine Oscar-winning film, you’ll be surprised at portions of the stage version, yet how smoothly, even rapidly, the story flows under the helm of Denis Jones. Indeed, it helps if you know the story ahead of time, because while the tragedy inherent in the story is still there, it gets a tad lost as plot points fly by.
Certainly, it’s primary virtues are the book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, a prolific English pop/rock songwriter who wrote numerous musicals for the West End, of which only Oliver ever found a solid footing in the United States. (Fun fact: He could not read or notate music, but he was co-composer of the title theme for “From Russia With Love.”)
You may never have heard on stage better renditions of the gorgeous “Who Will Buy,” a livelier “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” and the rest due in part to fine voices and that orchestra, all melded by music director Matthew Smedal.
Which backs us in to Lindsey Corey as the life force of Nancy. This critic has seen numerous productions, including the original New York version when he was a kid. But I have never heard the longing, heartfelt “As Long As He Needs Me” performed with more skill and soul than Corey gifts us with. In the 21st Century, you ought to want to grab Nancy and insist she escape her abusive violent lover. But Corey establishes, as few have before, the stunning depth of the proud independent Nancy’s love — even while acknowledging with clear eyes her lover’s malevolence.
In the past decade, Corey has accumulated memorable performance after performance whether it was the mother suffering post-partum depression in Theatre Lab’s Overactive Letdown or singing country in Actors Playhouse’s Lost Highway or the title character in Slow Burn’s Violet, or the immigrant mother pole dancing to earn money to keep her child in Zoetic Stage’s Stripped.
But this performance is a confluence capstone of her considerable talent, skill and sensitivity – including the life-tarnished exuberance emanating from her renditions of “Oom-Pah-Pah” or “It’s A Fine Life.”
Of course, crucial to the show landing is Benjamin Pajak, who was Winthrop in the recent Broadway run of The Music Man. While he has the required angelic voice and beatific visage as the adorable orphan, Pajak skillfully acts the meat of the melancholy lyrics such as the “Where Is Love?” As needed, he is credible whether Oliver is pitiful or rebellious.
British actor Jon. J. Peterson limns an appropriately grizzled Fagin, who somehow maintains the audience’s reluctant allegiance although he is basically using children to steal for him.
Seventh grader Chase Bauer makes a spunky Artful Dodger with plenty of engaging energy, although his enunciation under the accent was sometimes hard to decipher.
Most of the rest of the cast could not be bettered including Troy Stanley as the abominable Mr. Bumble, Kim Cozort Kay as his romantic target the Widow Corney, a chilling Bill Sikes from Cooper Grodin who won a Carbonell Award for the artist in Zoetic Stage’s Sunday in the Park With George, and James Michael Reilly amazingly inhabiting the kindly benefactor Mr. Brownlow but earlier as the slimy undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (You have to check the playbill to be sure they are the same actor).
The large ensemble plays multiple roles and understudies all the leads, among many, Wesley Slade, Roberta Blake, Emily Van Vliet Perea and Lizz Picini. And, yes, the kids playing Fagin’s gang and the workhouse waifs perform with a uniform professionalism you almost never see in kid choruses in these productions.
Jones’ choreography is energetic, engaging and serviceable although nothing out of the ordinary . Well, you do have to love the orphans slamming their wooden gruel bowls down for emphasis in “Food, Glorious Food.” But he has managed to get an unusual modicum of precision even out of the young ensemble members.
The creative team, the people executing their designs and the crew delivering them nightly are all praiseworthy. But a few notes:
Much of the Michael Schweikardt’s evocative scenery under a carved proscenium echoes an array of brick-lined Victorian London locales. Kirk Bookman provides sometimes ominous, sometimes optimistic lighting. The back wall is the theater’s new full-size LED screen and designer Zak Borovay adorns it with tableaux of poverty-stricken backwaters of London in what looks like black and white etchings. But as the plot goes on, color seeps into scenes, even glowing with color during Oliver’s brief time at Mr. Brownlow’s home and garden.
Tribute is due sound designer Scott Stauffer who ensures nearly every word is crisp and audible even when the orchestra is at full flower.
Leslye Menshouse once again finalizes the visual illusion with an array of period costumes that range from the raggedy workhouse boys to the preening Mr. Bumble.
Yes, it’s a show you have seen before, but rarely with the fullness and life on display here.
Oliver! runs through April 2 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Running time 2 hours 40 minutes including one intermission. Tickets cost $68-$120. Call (561) 575-2223 or visit https://tickets.jupitertheatre.org/BoxOffice/