Skip to content

Encore’s in Concert Performance Of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” At City Center, Saturday, May 13th, 2023 Reviewed

Can you write about Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” without discussing the repulsive way England in the Victorian era treated their children? “Oliver Twist” was a protest novel wrapped in a typical Dickens cliffhanger; his subject matter, from David Copperfield, Great Expectations, to Nicholas Nickleby to, yes, “Oliver Twist”, and more, was child abuse. Dickens wrote about children in extreme jeopardy because he had been a child in extreme jeopardy at the age of twelve when his father was stuck in debtors prison and Dickens was forced to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory pasting labels on shoe polish containers to provide for the family.

I know more about child labor than I wish I did because my father, Charif, in Damascus in the very early 20th century, was sent to work pre-teenager, and went to school as he could (where he was so smart he was paid to teach the other children). His father had died in some long forgotten war and his mother ended up in a lunatic asylum (known today as a psychiatrist ward). He was raised by his beloved big sister, and she died after he had been shipped out Nigeria as a fifteen year old to make his fortune. The family feared to tell him because they were scared he would stop sending money, and when he returned to Syria to discover his loss he was heartbroken. While Charif didn’t discuss it with his children, he probably should have warned us how tenuous our lives were.

These were all things I didn’t much understand when I saw the glorious musical motion picture at the tender age of twelve as well – a young rat myself, and it took myself and the other kids at school by storm with us becoming amateur pickpockets for the entire Christmas term.

But even besides child labor and, though not mentioned but read between the lines, child prostitution. If Bill Sykes -the violent henchman at the heart of the story- significant other Nancy wasn’t set to work the streets it is only because Victorian slum prudery would have stopped Dickens from spelling it out. This is dark as night and if Lionel Bart manages the expectations of a family friendly entertainment with the brutal life of London in the late 1830s (Queen Victoria came to power in 1837, the year the first installments of “Oliver Twist”), it doesn’t change the sad truth. We are worse to our offspring than many other mammals.

“Oliver!” was a wonderful movie and only one of two musicals (the other was “The Sound Of Music”) I can sing from one end to the other. The composer, Lionel Bart (born Begleiter) was Jewish despite the racism poured all over the great Ron Moody’s portrayal of the pound of flesh-er Jewish character Fagin. The music was a mix of Jewish traditional (listen for the violins that back Fagin). UK music hall, and mainstream pop balladeering. The musical is a (food) glorious (food) thing, the ballads, “When will I Be Loved” and “As Long As He Needs Me” no less than “Oom-Pah-Pah” and “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two”.

But I had not seen in on stage till yesterday. The first production opened on the West End in 1960, moving to Broadway in 1963, and the last Broadway production was in 1984 (if I had had the money I would have certainly gone) with Ron Moody (did I mention what a wonderful actor he was?) and (wait for it) Patti Lupone as Nancy: personally, I should have sold my mother for a ticket. While there was a 2009 revival on the West End with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, it didn’t make the trip.

So… 39 years after the last time New York got to see Oliver, we see it again… for two weeks (it closes today but will probably be resuscitated for the 2024 season). It is part of City Center “Encore” series where they have two weeks to rehearse and then put on a show with open book. If you are a theatre fan you certainly know the Encore series, “Oliver!” is their 84th production (their 85th is arriving in June, “The Light in the Piazza” by Adam Guettel -our best living musical theatre composer since the loss of Stephen Sondheim).

“Oliver!” doesn’t and couldn’t be a great production the way director Lear deBessonet’s “Into The Woods” (which transferred to Broadway here) was. For all I loved about “into The Woods” it is very like “Chicago” (which in 1996 went from Encores to Broadway… where it remains), in that it lacks production values which is an “of course, what did you think?” but Into The Woods didn’t need them and Oliver does not necessarily for Encores but will if they move to Broadway). Before you charge me $500 a tix show us the money you have (will spend) to get us in the theatre.

But the orchestration is perfect and its best performers are magical. I haven’t seen Raul Esparza on Broadway since 2012’s “Leap Of Faith” but he remains a top Broadway leading man and his performance as Fagin owes not all that much to Ron Moody. Ron was 100% Jewish and even so, he went right to the edge of anti-Semitism (not Bob Dylan Jewishness but Shylock) and only the good humor of the entire production saved him. Raul is the least Jewish performance of Fagin you will see: by the end, with Raul leaning at the side after losing everything, his lack of Jewish finds him a charming criminal and all the religious bigotry dissipated in a performance that includes a “Reviewing The Situation” for the ages. If Esparza is great then so is Lilli Cooper as Nancy and she sings everything exceptionally well whether fast, slow, main or not.

As for Oliver himself, Benjamin Pajak is a star. At twelve years of age he is a pro (and, of course, how about child labor? Apparently, entertainment is the only place it is acceptable) , last year he was a standout in the Wintergarden revival of “The Music Man” (here) and his take on “When Will I Be Loved” is a standard bearer. Otherwise, the performances aren’t quite good enough. The performance lacks the charm it needs.

I believe “Oliver!” will make its way to Broadway, Cameron Mackintosh has the skill set to get it there, but if they don’t put the money in it won’t do very well. And if they don’t hurry up Benjamin Pajak will age out of it.

Grade: B

Leave a Comment





Amazon_Smile_logo-e1623352788338-reupload
ScreenShot2020-10-05at12.00.04PM-reupload

Support Let Me Help Inc by shopping at smile.amazon.com

The Daisy Jopling Band To Perform “Who’s Who” At The Transfiguration Church In Tarrytown, NY Sunday May 12th, 2024 7 PM ET

By admin | May 9, 2024 |

The Transfiguration Church in Tarrytown, New York Presents “Who’s Who”, original violin arrangements of iconic songs by The Who performed by the Daisy Jopling Band featuring the Sleepy Hollow High School Chamber Orchestra on Sunday, May 12th, 2024. Location: Transfiguration Church 268 South Broadway Tarrytown, NY 10591 United States Tickets are $25 and can be…

Cyborg Drummer/DJ DRMAGDN Headlining Montauk Music Fest

By admin | April 9, 2024 |

Major Label BMG Records Artist & Producer DRMAGDN Cyborg Drummer / DJ will be making his Montauk Music Fest debut this year in May. DRMAGDN will be the Official Host & MC of The Montauk Music Fest plus play headlining sets on Friday 5/17 and Saturday 5/18 from 10pm-12am at Gurney’s Montauk Resort (290 Old…

RED CARPET EVENT @ Chelsea Table & Stage 4/12/24 Featuring THE AMERICAN RELICS & DRMAGDN

By admin | March 25, 2024 |

On Friday April 12th, 2024 beginning at 6:30 pm ET  there will be a Red Carpet event pre-show sponsored by Tribeca Records at the trendy nightspot Chelsea Table and Stage located in the heart of Chelsea at 152 west 26th street (inside the Hilton Fashion Hotel) in NYC. The Red Carpet will be followed by…

Live Review: Composer Randy Edelman Live at Chelsea T&S “2nd Annual St. Patrick’s Day Massacre” 03/16/24 and Record Release in NYC

By admin | March 17, 2024 |

There was an infinite vitality of velvet green flowing deliciously through the air as Composer Randy Edelman presented his 2nd Annual St. Patrick’s Day Massacre at the trendy new nightspot Chelsea Table & Stage in the heart of NYC on March 16, 2024….. a vivacious close to the spirited Irish Parade. His music is the…

DRMAGDN: Cyborg Drummer/DJ Debuts @ Chelsea T&S With Retro 80’s Party & Red Carpet Event 4/12/24

By admin | February 29, 2024 |

BMG recording artist, producer and World renowned, Global Touring Electrifying Powerhouse, DRMAGDN: Cyborg Drummer and DJ will make his debut at the popular, trendy night spot Chelsea Table & Stage (located at 152 west 26th street inside the Hilton Hotel) on  Friday April 12, 2024 @ 9:00PM. DRMAGDN will be celebrating his high energy brand of Electronic Dance Music (EDM)…

Going Steady: New Singles 2-23-24- 2-29-24 Reviewed

By Iman Lababedi | February 26, 2024 |

dance pop, gooey confection

US Top Ten Albums Tracking 2-16-24 – 2-22-24

By Iman Lababedi | February 26, 2024 |

75K EAUs is abysmal

Our Friend Tony Orlando’s Farewell Tour

By admin | February 25, 2024 |

“I still hit the ball, I just can’t run the bases!!!”

Sneak Peaks: New Album releases 3-1-24 – 3-7-24

By Iman Lababedi | February 25, 2024 |

contenders for the best punk rock around

Child Bite, Lamb Of God, Pantera At Madison Square Garden, Thursday, February 22nd, 2024, Reviewed

By Iman Lababedi | February 25, 2024 |

A three hours of hard rock, metal not metal, swift, loud, egoless pure metal

Scroll To Top