Dickensian Exploitation

Oliver! is among the best musicals ever written. But in 1960, when Lionel Bart -- then a young, working-class composer -- prepared for its debut, many critics were dubious. Although Charles Dickens's novel, Oliver Twist, on which the musical is based, is full of fascinating, eccentric and entirely original characters, the action is grim. It was hard to imagine how the story of a small boy starved and brutalized in Victorian England and falling in with a band of thieves could make a reasonable musical, even given the typically kindhearted Dickensian ending. Sure enough, in Bart's hands, some characters and subplots disappeared; other characters lightened in tone, and the overall feeling of the piece became sunnier. Not all of the changes were reductive, however. In the novel, Fagin is a vile character, almost purely evil-hearted and a relentless exploiter of his band of child pickpockets. No one grieves when he's tried and sentenced to death, despite his pathetic response that he's "an old manŠan old man." Bart's Fagin is a more ambiguous figure, and he fares much better at the end. This Fagin has a rueful, self-deprecating humor and a spidery, wavering cunning. He even seems capable of kindness on occasion.

But if the result of Bart's work was now suitable for children, it was still identifiably Oliver Twist. And the horrors of low-class London life, though softened, didn't disappear completely. This was underlined in Carol Reed's brilliant 1968 film, when childish heads popped up suddenly from a row of chimneys, reminding us of the skinny, underaged little sweepers who often suffocated on the job. And the irrepressibly capering energy of Oliver is Dickensian, too. Bill Sikes remains irredeemably evil and as haunted by his murdered Nancy's eyes as he was in the novel -- though it's impossible for the stage to emulate the blood-drenched juiciness of Dickens's prose.

So the characters are lively and surprising, the action is involving, and the songs -- the songs are terrific. They're catchy, with clever, deceptively simple lyrics and infectious rhythms. The show begins with a paean to food, sung by hungry orphan boys but calling to the soul of every passionate eater: "Food, Glorious Food." Then there's Mr. Bumble's ironically lovely "Boy for Sale" (given wistful power in the film by Harry Secombe's unexpectedly operatic tenor), the sweet longing of "Where Is Love?" and the gorgeous way "Who Will Buy?" builds, element by element, to its crescendo. There are also all kinds of energetic, toe-tapping tunes like "Consider Yourself (at Home)," "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" and "I'd Do Anything." It's impossible to find one song in this show that's a dud.

Oliver! was revived at the London Palladium in 1994 by Cameron Mackintosh, with Jonathan Pryce as Fagin, and it was a tremendous hit. The set was beautiful, the lighting lyrical, every aspect of the production first-rate. Now Mackintosh has sent it on the road, and Denver is seeing the road-show premiere.

This is not the Palladium production. To begin with, the Buell, with its small stage and limited resources, can only accomplish so much. The sets are ingenious and the set changes fluid and interesting, but the vile-smelling mist that gets pumped out to simulate a London fog is an inadequate substitute for the sweeping, moody skies that light designer David Hersey provided in London. The sound is poorly balanced, with the orchestra frequently overpowering the singers' voices as if the two elements were competing rather than working together. There are also a few actors in the cast who aren't quite ready for prime time. Parts of the show feel rough, and sometimes there's just too much on-stage rushing and carrying on and too little attention to detail.

Despite all this, Oliver! makes for an enjoyable evening. The cast's numerous children sing, dance and act well, and they are choreographed with humor and without sentimentality. Justin S. Pereira is a sweet-natured Oliver; his pure singing touches your heart, though he often seems remarkably unfazed by all the nasty things that are being done to him. Andrew Blau capers wonderfully as the Artful Dodger. I was of two minds about Mark McCracken's Fagin. With his cobwebby beard and his long fingers endlessly working as if they long for the feel of money, he is energetic, funny and sometimes touching. But he just doesn't seem like Fagin to me -- not Jewish, not a Londoner, and not possessed of the right sensibility. Shane R. Tanner is a good Bill Sikes -- low-key and menacing without being melodramatic. As Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, Ken Clement and Gwen Eyster provide comic relief. Eyster is particularly good with her sinister eye, strong voice and angry flumping around the stage. Renata Renee Wilson plays Nancy. Her program biography states -- astonishingly -- that this is her first post-college acting job. I predict wonderful things for her. She has an appealing, eye-catching stage presence, a strong, clear speaking voice and a pretty, melodic alto that surges easily into a house-filling belt.

Acting has always been one of the least secure professions, but that doesn't mean actors have been spared the current spate of attacks on workers' rights. This road show is non-Equity -- which may account for the unevenness of the cast. Equity actors make about $1,300 a week, and a special touring agreement allows some shows to pay a salary of about $800. But non-Equity performers get as little as $400 a week and no benefits. Performing may seem glamorous, but actors work incredibly hard and have to pay their bills like everyone else. If we've come a long way from the desperate underground world of Oliver Twist, it's in large part because workers demanded their rights -- and those rights are always in danger. Anyone who thinks that hunger and homelessness, even among the fully employed, are things of the past hasn't looked around lately. The fact that Oliver! -- based on Dickens's compassionate novel and buoyed by the working-class sensibility of Lionel Bart -- comes to us as a scab production leaves a particularly bad taste in the mouth.