“Oliver!” may be Britain’s most cherished musical but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly good, and no amount of stunning scenery — these days a British musical given — in the new Cameron Mackintosh revival can disguise that fact. Boasting a stageful of showbizzy kids and a hammy, audience-pleasing performance from Jonathan Pryce, “Oliver!” knocks itself out wanting to be loved and the British will no doubt respond in kind. But whether Lionel Bart’s musical will be picking theatergoers’ pockets internationally remains to be seen; this show is about as echt-English as they come.
The amazing thing is that “Oliver!” has flourished for 34 years, given its skimpy book, lack of characterization and its peculiar mixture of the sentimental and (in the Bill Sikes-Nancy story) the lurid. It’s not just that the show sells Dickens short — how exact an exegesis of Victor Hugo is “Les Miserables,” after all? — but that it aims so low.
In essence, “Oliver!” wants to deliver that uniquely English phenomenon, a “knees-up,” and accomplishes only that. Those looking for a show marrying narrative to song will have to turn to another Mackintosh reclamation in which a man’s abuse of a woman, oddly enough, is also an issue — Rodgers & Hammerstein’s truly adult “Carousel.” There’s very little in “Oliver!” to engage an adult mind.
Bart races through the Dickens source, his rudimentary book linking an eclectically jaunty score, here jazzily re-orchestrated by the invaluable William Brohn. After his ambitiously revisionist “Cabaret” last year at the Donmar Warehouse, director Sam Mendes might have been expected to darken the tone a bit to cater to a contemporary audience presumably more aware than in 1960 about the harsh realities of street life and homelessness.
Not at all: There’s barely a smudged cheek on the faces of these moppets to hint at life among the Dickensian underclass.
These kids are appealing — look out for a tiny whirlwind of a chorus boy named Luke Brown — but they inhabit the world of showbiz, pure and simple; after awhile, one half expects Mama Rose to shout, “Sing out, Louis!” down the Palladium side aisle.
Pryce slums it agreeably as the most benign (and camp) of Fagins in a performance that never once conveys the thrilling sense of danger he brought to “Miss Saigon.” Looking more like a shaggy-haired beat poet than a denizen of the London underworld, Pryce’s Fagin — a fluttery finger here, a double take there — seems so unthreateningly genial that one wonders what situation he is possibly reviewing in his final number.
The role requires a vaudevillian, not a real actor, and one can’t help feeling it’s a waste of Pryce’s extraordinary gifts.
If this “Oliver!” creates any star, it should be RSC alumna Sally Dexter, whose blowsy, huge-voiced Nancy is the career-making performance this actress has long deserved. She actually makes palatable a devotion to Bill Sikes that — unlike Julie Jordan’s affection for Billy Bigelow — really does defy reason.
As Sikes, a gravelly Miles Anderson is miscast, though the boos he earned at the press-night curtain call revealed less about his acting than about this show’s true origins in English pantomime: Sikes is The Villain.
As a piece of stagecraft, the production is well drilled if not especially inventive: Too many numbers end with the singer center-stage belting in a way not seen since the West End “Chess”; Matthew Bourne’s relentlessly jolly choreography begins to seem the same after awhile — and then in “Who Will Buy?” strains to look different.
Mendes no doubt had his hands full directing two separate sets of 24 kids and his Artful Dodger for opening night, Adam Searles, had Cockney panache and charm to spare. (James Daley’s sweet-faced Oliver is good too, in easily the lesser of the two roles.)
The effects, such as they are, are clever and unself-conscious — a chase or two through the London fog; the passing of an overhead train; the sudden appearance of manholes, a rooftop, a Bloomsbury crescent, London Bridge.
The architect of the visual fluency is the designer, Anthony Ward, a longtime Mendes collaborator and the only member of the production to leave an unmistakably fresh mark.
Peter Coe’s original staging was defined by Sean Kenny’s revolve, and so this one will be by Ward’s no less canny stage instincts. (Consider, to start with, “Consider Yourself,” in which the cast spills joyously across one London locale after another, ending with the arrival center-stage of St. Paul’s Cathedral.)
It may seem odd to cite subtlety in a show so unconcerned with it, but that’s exactly the achievement of Ward’s shifting perspectives and symmetries. “Oliver!” may be big and broad and hollow but one need only look at any moment of this production to see where its real grace notes lie.