For audiences to witness Charles Dickens' classic tale of the small orphan boy who dared to ask for 'more', the choice has been to see productions that are full of songs, large casts, and a sanitized version of the story for musical theater audiences. That has all changed with the brilliant adaptation by British playwright, Neil Bartlett presented at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. He uses only Dickens' own words to tell the story and what a story he tells! The production deftly directed by Brian B. Crowe (in his 17th season with The Shakespeare Theatre) utilizes the talents of 13 amazing performers to portray 30 different roles as they transition in and out of 100 costumes. Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST running through Oct 7th in Madison, NJ, does not shy away from the grit and terror of Dickens' original story, yet is entertaining, humorous, and quite moving in many scenes. I experienced the same joy watching this production that I felt seeing PETER AND THE STARCATCHER on Broadway--that of an audience member who is impressed by an inspired director who has a clear vision and knows how to execute it. Crowe is a master at using the intimate space of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre to his full advantage as he turns a table into a bed, uses actors to become set pieces in a court setting, and keeps us on The Edge of our seats during a show for which so many know the outcome. Kudos to him and his wonderful retelling of this tale.
The cast all have moments to shine playing the thirty different characters in the show - sometimes through acting moments and other times through playing instruments and singing. I was particularly taken with the performance of Robbie Collier Sublett, the narrator to the piece and wonderfully nuanced Artful Dodger. We are privy to a performer who shares such warmth and admiration not only for the orphan boy but also for the story he discloses. And his amazingly well thought-out Dodger is one only a seasoned performer could demonstrate. Each sleight-of-hand trick he performs or glance he gives to the other 'lost boys' shows a Dodger that goes well beyond the top hat on his head. The title role is played by the adult Quentin McCuiston with a wide-eyed wonder, fear of the unknown, and gentleness that is palpable. Dickens refers to Oliver as angelic many times in his writing and McCuiston carries that beautifully. Many productions show Fagin as a con-man comic with a heart of gold. Longtime company member Ames Adamson gives a performance like no other I've seen. Multi-layered, unafraid to show the evil streak in the man - and yet somehow make us feel for him by play's end (which by the way sticks right with the book instead of the award-winning musical version).
Jeffrey N. Bender is a standout performer: both as the menacing and brutal Bill Sykes as well as the undertaker's wife, Mrs. Sowerberry. This is a brilliant choice of splitting up this huge cast of characters to allow an actor to show such an amazing range and Bender does just that. Corey Tazmania finds the heart of the tough-as-nails Nancy and plays her with gusto. And that she gets to create an ending scene from the Dickens' novel that so many of us never get to see; I'm certain is a harrowing gem for an actress to tackle. Eric Hoffman and Tina Stafford give excellent performances as Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney while John Little, Andrew Boyer and Andy Paterson each bring wonderful life to the myriad of Victorian characters they play, making these people so accessible to audiences in 2012. George Abud, David Andrew Laws and Meg Kiley Smith fill out the cast with well-rounded performances.
The design team of Brian J. Ruggaber, Andrew Hungerford, Steven L. Beckel, and Nancy Leary elevate this production to splendid heights with the sets, lights, sound, and costumes. These elements in a show should never be overlooked and are often not appreciated enough for what they bring to an audience's enjoyment. Each fleck of light that shines through the dirty glass panels that hover over the cast; the drone that sounds from the moment the audience enters; and costumes that peel away quickly displaying yet another - all are brilliant in capturing the essence of Dickens' old London. And we should not forget Kris Kukul's original music which sets the perfect tone for this show.