In what has inadvertently (and inevitably) become a tradition, I spent the day before the Tony Awards at the theater. This year I opted to see the off-Broadway production of Oliver!, presented by the National Asian Artists Project (NAAP), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering and promoting Asian-American performers of all ages. To learn more about this organization, visit their site at http://www.naaproject.org/. I had first learned of this organization through a good friend of mine, and how they present a fully costumed musical each year. When I learned that this year’s show was Oliver!, I was overjoyed at the news – Oliver! was one of the first musicals that had an impact on my childhood and influenced my love of musical theater. In fact, I was in an elementary school production of Oliver! wherein I was in the ensemble as well as a (small) featured soloist in one of the songs [I was the milkmaid in the “Who Will Buy?” number]. This production was the first time the show was presented in New York since its initial run in the 1960s – while there had been a major revival on the West End and countless regional productions, there has yet to be a major Broadway revival of this show (there had been a Broadway revival in 1984 which, according to ibdb.com, only ran less than a month). With all the kid-friendly shows on Broadway now (new and revivals), there should be a revival of Oliver! on Broadway (hopefully soon).
But I digress.
Oliver! is the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist about the (mis)adventures of the titular character – from his life as an orphan in a workhouse, his brief (aborted) tenure as an undertaker’s apprentice to his chance meeting with the Artful Dodger, Fagin and his merry band of pickpockets, and boasts a rousing score by Lionel Bart with such memorable tunes as “Food, Glorious Food” “Consider Yourself”, “As Long As He Needs Me” and many others. The NAAP production played at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in the Signature Theatre Center, the recipient of the Regional Theater Tony Award this year, only for four performances (essentially this past weekend). As mentioned earlier, this musical was one of the first two musicals in which I was involved in elementary school (the other being The Pajama Game) and while I was able to watch the (fairly recent) Broadway revival of Pajama Game a few years ago, I had yet to see a professional production of Oliver!; the NAAP production was the closest (at least for now) opportunity to do so.
The set design was sparse yet effective, with set pieces moving on and off stage with fluid grace; the costumes were apt for 19th Century England, in mainly subdued tones typical of the time period, with a piano and string bass (with the occasional accordion and violin) proving musical accompaniment. The cast, consisting mainly of Asian-American Equity actors and children from local elementary schools, were astounding, bringing life to this fantastic score. Notable standouts were Bonale Zohn Fambrini as the titular Oliver, displaying a fine range of pathos and courage as well as an angelic voice; Anthea Neri as the proud and loyal Nancy and Raul Aranas as Fagin, opportunistic yet mindful with the young children he’s employed and protected.
The production as a whole was amazing, bringing back so many memories of my own experience performing this show many, many years ago. It’s a shame that this production did not have a longer run or garner more attention on this Tony Awards weekend – it was well worth seeing in lieu of a major Broadway revival, which I hope will happen someday soon.