Few musicals have as many ear worms as Lionel Bart's Oliver! And they're sure to crawl into the deepest crevasses of your brain when delivered by the highly talented (and highly adorable) cast at Paper Mill Playhouse in the theater's first remount of the classic musical since 1994. Best known to current Broadway audiences as the original home to the hit musical Newsies and the recent launch pad for what may be the future Rialto hit Honeymoon in Vegas, the New Jersey theater rarely fails to put on an entertaining musical, and this one is no exception.
Director Mark S. Hoebee allows the classic material to stand on its own, lending a light touch to polish the show's already lustrous shine. It's clear from the perfectly manicured London dirt that the creative team's focus is on a family-aimed mounting rather than an avant-garde one that highlights the darker lining in Charles Dickens' story of the poor, orphaned Oliver Twist. Set designer Mark Morton creates a hazy London atmosphere that smacks more of Mary Poppins than the mean London slums of the Victorian Era. Nonetheless, every smiling face in the house proves that Paper Mill's neatly packaged presentation perfectly scratches the wholesome holiday itch that packs the theater at this time of year.
JoAnn M. Hunter's exciting choreography is one of the production's most valuable assets, matching the intoxicating energy of the musical's famous tunes with smooth moves and lively steps. The show has also been blessed with a cast of performers who have hopped on for the show's six-week run in between Broadway engagements. John Treacy Egan lends his beautiful lyric tenor to the role of the not-so-beautiful Mr. Bumble, the workhouse beadle who famously refuses Oliver a second helping of gruel, setting the boy on his journey through London. Jessica Sheridan comically complements him as the lascivious Widow Corney, who plays a wonderfully naughty game of cat and mouse with Bumble in the flirtatious number "I Shall Scream."
Jose Llana makes for a believable Bill Sikes, though those who know him from his Broadway performance as pubescent Boy Scout Chip Tolentino in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee would likely agree that the role of an unapologetically evil thief is not a match made in casting heaven. Even so, he offers a convincingly maniacal performance opposite Betsy Morgan as his abused lover, Nancy. Morgan provides a sturdy interpretation of the role, portraying a strong woman who has happened upon the misfortune of falling under Bill Sikes' spell. With a gruffness to her voice, Morgan leads the ensemble in a rousing rendition of the bar ditty "Oom-Pah-Pah" (during which she manages to sing while swinging upside down) and reveals her voice's softer side in the tragic ballad "As Long As He Needs Me" before belting out its final notes. However, among the adults onstage, David Garrison steals the show as Fagin, the thieving mentor to a hoard of young boys. Garrison seamlessly melts into the endearingly villainous character, owning the stage with his tour-de-force performance of "Reviewing the Situation."
But of course, these filthy old grown-ups are not what audiences came to see. The musical's charm indisputably comes from its young stars, and Paper Mill has found two talented boys who are up to the task. Tyler Moran, with his cherubic face, flowing locks, and strong yet innocent voice, is tailor-made for the role. Ethan Haberfield sinks his teeth into the arguably more interesting character of the Artful Dodger — pick-pocket savant — delivering all the charisma and commanding energy the role requires. However, even before we meet these two charming young lads, we are immediately disarmed by the angelic faces of the workhouse boys (all New Jersey natives) who, joined by the accomplished dancers of the ensemble, energetically open the show with the endlessly hummable "Food, Glorious Food." Utterly defenseless against the coming onslaught of Dickensian song and dance, we become low-hanging fruit, ripe for the "pick-pocketing."