“Consider yours-e-e-e-e-e-lf … ” As the triumphant accompaniment to the show’s best-loved number gallops to the finish, the company clings to piled-up harmonies of the extended penultimate phrase, flings itself about the action-packed stage, hurls itself at the climax and the audience erupts. With showstoppers like that, months of anticipation following the TV-casting of its leads, and a $22 million advance, this “Oliver!” is not so much back for more as back for good. Yet for all its high points, much of the show is sadly uninvolving.
Famously, there are no sure things in showbiz, but Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Lionel Bart’s masterpiece comes more guaranteed than most. Until “Billy Elliot” arrived, this was the sole contender for the title of Favorite British Musical of All Time. Better yet, it’s not just the piece that is being revived, but the production itself. Sam Mendes helmed it in 1994 at the 2,198-seat London Palladium where it ran for four years.
The major bonus of its return is the new venue. The Palladium is terrifically wide but has so little depth it felt like a parade being staged on a window-ledge. The Theater Royal Drury Lane has immense depth, and the production — re-directed by Rupert Goold — seizes its every opportunity.
So much so, that the star of the show is not one of the performers: It’s the design team. The meshing of Anthony Ward’s constantly shifting, magnificently handsome perspective sets of creepy backstreets, expansive crescents, toweringly high walkways and low-down dives with Paule Constable’s alternately shivery and glowing lighting is masterly.
The added space also liberates co-director and choreographer Matthew Bourne. In the original staging, his most exciting moment was where he charged the atmosphere by having lines of performers grab each others’ hands and rush down front. Sadly, that was the curtain call.
Happily, Bourne has completely reinvigorated his work. His superb opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” is driven by literally dozens and dozens of gray boys in caught, taut collective-movement patterns that perfectly capture the grim daily grind of the workhouse.
“Oom-pa-pa,” traditionally little more than a location-setter crossed with an act two opener, has all the bawdy, ribald excess of a Jan Steen painting of a tavern after a few too many. Bourne constantly harnesses the cross-rhythms of William David Brohn’s first-rate orchestrations — cunningly withheld string moments, racy brass, exuberant piccolos — to fill numbers with tension and build them to immensely pleasurable effect.
The problems arrive with the acting. Charles Dickens’ original hardly escapes the charge of sentimentality but Bart’s adaptation defines the term. His book is so schematic that most of its emotions are unearned, leaving audiences admiring but untouched. With little time for drama and even less for actors to flesh out their roles, the challenge is for the director to create tonal coherence, which is where Goold comes unstuck.
He pushes everyone toward exaggeration. As the undertaker, Julian Bleach is a ripe cross between the Addams Family and Edward Gorey. Most of the other performers fall headlong into unengaging caricature, notably Burn Gorman’s dully aggressive Bill Sikes.
Goold also badly overplays his hand with over-sexualized performing in some of the smaller roles. “I better go downstairs,” flirts the undertaker’s daughter, massaging her crotch. “Something’s burning…” It’s cheap and peculiar in a family show.
At the press performance Ross McCormack shone as the Artful Dodger.
The script sets him up as a cheeky chap and he more than fulfills the requirement. If serious Harry Stott as Oliver is more becalmed it’s because the script offers him even less to do.
Rowan Atkinson delivers the most rounded and gleeful performance. Despite at times being rhythmically unsteady, he not only skirts Fagin’s potential anti-Semitism but manages to blend beautifully timed humor with flashes of sinister danger.
As Nancy, flashing-eyed Jodie Prenger, cast by audience vote on the BBC’s “I’d Do Anything,” delivers a bust-a-gut rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me.” But her later reprise is disappointing because she’s not skilled enough to ring the changes with it. Nor does she prove herself an instinctive actor capable of finding an understandable reason or route through her relationship with a wife-beater.
Not that audiences will care. Mackintosh’s production team delivers more than its fair share of wonders. But when Oliver is made to attempt to cry as he sings “Where Is Love” — an action which ironically stops audiences from crying — you’re left wondering what happened to the emotion?