The exuberance of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!," the Britisher's musical adaptation (book, music, and lyrics) of Dickens' "Oliver Twist," overrode its shortcomings when it came to Broadway early in 1963. And that still holds true in the sprightly revival that opened last night at the Mark Hellinger.
The startling thing about the production, which again has the advantage of Peter Coe's imaginative staging and the late Sean Kenny's striking scenic (and costume) design, is its reminder of the impact it had on the musical theater both here and in London.
Kenny's dark wood, fluid set which is composed of shifting stairways, ramps and catwalks presaged an entire school of large-scale theater encompassing such disparate works as "Nicholas Nickleby," "Evita" and "Sweeney Todd," to name but a few.
And Coe's use of these elements was scarcely overlooked by such directors as Trevor Nunn and Harold Prince.
Bart's songs are an amalgam of influences ranging from English music hall to the teams of Rodgers and Hammerstein and of Lerner and Loewe.
And while they are not of the first order, they are invariably lively and tuneful. Such jaunty numbers as "Consider Yourself" and "I'd Do Anything" are hard to resist, and the show's surefire torch song, "As Long as He Needs Me," has become a standard.
The large cast, which includes a bouncy chorus of boys, doubling as the workhouse kids and Fagin's gang, and scads of adult Londoners milling in the streets, is headed by Ron Moody and Patti LuPone.
Moody, who was the original London Fagin and the movie musical one, is exceedingly deft whether instructing the lads in his craft to the tune of "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" or mulling over his future in "Reviewing the Situation."
The attractive Patti LuPone's strong stage presence and full-throated way with a song are ideal qualities brought to the role of Nancy and her show-stopping song "As Long as He Needs Me."
Braden Danner is a rather muted, but pleasingly unaffected, Oliver. David Garlick is splendid fun as the Artful Dodger, and a bald and towering Graeme Campbell is suitably menacing as Bill Sikes.
Michael Allinson, sounding a bit as though he's talking through tissue paper, brings a cultivated air to Oliver's savior, Mr. Brownlow, and there are fully appropriate characterizations by Michael McCarty as the pompous beadle for the workhouse, by Roderick Horn as the undertaker, and by Elizabeth Larner and Frances Cuka as their respective wives.
There's also a letter-perfect dog to negotiate the walks and steps of the intricate set.
Above all, "Oliver!" is that rarity in the Broadway theater, a great show for kids, the first since "Annie" departed. And let them bring you along. I don't think you'll mind it a bit.
Lionel Bart's Oliver! is back for more. And what a difference a star can make. A star, a movie, and just possibly a few years in time.
When Bart's Dickensian musical turned up on Broadway in 1963 it was moderately well-liked - but there were difficulties.
People who had seen the original production in London starring Ron Moody, who had not come over with the show, instantly realized where part of the trouble lay. Moreover what was originally a fairly intimate British musical - the first important British musical in years - looked over-inflated on Broadway.
Last night at the Mark Hellinger, Oliver! fortunately came back, and this time around, although a revival, it has the makings of a hit. For one thing it has as Fagin the immaculate, peerless, and irreplaceable Mr. Moody making his foolishly belated Broadway debut, and all is right with the musical.
But this is not the only plus for this fresh view of Oliver!. Carol Reed's Oscar-winning 1967 movie version (also with Moody) created a new audience for the show, although that film was far more Dickensian, and longer, than any stage musical could hope to be.
The music has also survived better than most would have suspected. Bart's later musicals - like Blitz!, never seen on Broadway - flopped, and his music was being written off as derivative. A long-running London revival, starring Roy Hudd, in 1977, suggested that the show possibly had lasting legs, and this might here be confirmed.
The music, once dismissed as merely "catchy," in fact cleverly combines English vaudeville with Hollywood lyric glitz, while no less than the Royal Shakespeare Company itself has endowed respectability on a stage full of Dickens.
Interestingly, while one must not even try to compare Oliver! with the RSC's quite differently intentioned Nicholas Nickleby, this new production does give us the opportunity to pay tribute to the descending genius of the late Sean Kenny, an architect who died in 1973 at age 41.
Without Kenny's innovative approach, much of modern stage design (including Nickleby) would have been very different - as would the very concept of Oliver!, with its Gustave Dore drop curtain and then the whole seething life of mid-Victorian London suggested by a revolving stage, a staircase, and architectural drops. It is pure design brilliance.
Yet while there is obviously some vulgarization (along with all the condensation and adaptation) there are times in his book, music, and lyrics, when Bart - in nostalgic street cries for example, or a chiarascuro view of a workhouse - rises to his Dickensian occasion.
And when he doesn't, even then the musical - directed as in 1960 by Peter Coe - is fast-moving, attractive, and, always, dramatic. Coe's work here is exemplary - up until now he probably has never done anything else with quite the same flair - and he has here a very good, largely American, cast to work with.
So many of the performances are going to have to stand comparison with the movie - and, on the whole, they don't do badly.
Patti Lupone plays the tragic Nancy - Dickens's Cockney tart with the heart - with zest and finesse, singing the hit As Long as He Needs Me with the same kind of tough poignancy she brought to her Evita.
Graeme Campbell makes an exceptionally villainous Bill Sikes, Braden Danner a sweet-faced Oliver, David Garlick offers a lively Artful Dodger, and Sarah E. Litzsinger is a woeful little Lolita as Bet.
But the Open Sesame to Bart's show - apart from Sean Kenney's evocative costumes and promethean setting - is really Moody's Fagin. I have seen some good actors do Fagin - including Clive Revill on Broadway - but none like Moody.
Sometimes - especially in musicals perhaps - the role and the actor almost fuse. Well, Moody is to Fagin what Zero Mostel was to Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
It is, of course, a comic Fagin. Anyone expecting something like Alec Guinness in the 1948 David Lean movie - still a classic portrayal - are in for a surprise and, possibly, disappointment. Moody's Fagin - rascally, cheerfully unredeemed, even lovable - is pure Jewish humor in a particularly English context.
His timing, his movement, even his accent, come from a long tradition of English clowns, his gentle mock deprecation is English Jewish at its best, but his skinny, antic vitality is all his alone.
This is a superlative performer in a unique performance. He is not nearly well known enough in this country, and you must see him. He makes all the difference between Oliver! and Oliver! simply by giving it his old-new twist.
Until Andrew Lloyd Webber's hits started to roll off the assembly line in the 1970's, Lionel Bart's ''Oliver!'' held the record as the longest-running English musical ever to play Broadway. I'm afraid that this distinction says more about the quality of other English musicals than it does about the merits of ''Oliver!'' In its first Broadway run two decades ago, Mr. Bart's bowdlerized retelling of ''Oliver Twist'' seemed an old-fashioned, if tuneful, operetta. Predictably, the passing years have not been kind. In its new revival at the Mark Hellinger, the show is likely to hold the attention of only the youngest and most obedient children.
''Oliver!'' is not unpleasant - just dull. Indeed, the first 40-odd minutes of the current production is as much afflicted by rigor mortis as the stiffs in the undertaker's emporium where the orphan hero briefly works. The evening gathers some steam once its two savvy stars, Ron Moody (Fagin) and Patti LuPone (Nancy), make their belated entrances, but, even then, ''Oliver!'' never becomes rousing. The only sustained outpouring of joy occurs in the full-cast song medley of the curtain call. At a critics' preview, the audience's biggest hand was accorded to the villain Bill Sikes's dog.
To understand why ''Oliver!'' fails, one needn't compare the musical to its source. While it's true that Mr. Bart reduces Dickens's novel to a series of inanimate cartoon panels - one can almost see the dialogue balloons above the immobile players' heads - that wouldn't matter if the show had genuine musical-comedy panache and spontaneity. But, now as before, ''Oliver!'' has little style or dancing and only a few broad jokes. Mr. Bart's songs are tossed randomly into his indistinct book, like raisins in a Christmas pudding, with the result that even the skimpy remnants of Dickens's sure-fire plot lose their propulsive force. To see what's missing in ''Oliver!,'' one need only recall Broadway's ''Annie'' - another cartoon musical about an orphan who's rescued by a rich benefactor, but one that was built like a clock and wrapped in razzle-dazzle.
''Oliver!'' has been directed by Peter Coe, who staged the original both on the West End and on Broadway. Aside from some minor surgery that includes the welcome excision of one song (''I Shall Scream''), Mr. Coe has replicated his previous work. We even get to look at the late Sean Kenny's original and, for its time, strikingly innovative scenery. In an era when many big musicals still used heavy, multiple sets that were changed behind frontdrops or during blackouts, Mr. Kenny designed a single, all-purpose, somewhat abstract construct, which moved about in full view of the audience. While Mr. Kenny's gloomy Brechtian design may look unimpressive now (especially as lighted by Andrew Bridge), it is still the only modern aspect of ''Oliver!''
With the exceptions of the stars and Graeme Campbell (whose Sikes is the single remotely Dickensian cameo of the evening), the performers who inhabit Mr. Kenny's wooden scaffolding are mostly mediocre. Braden Danner, who plays the title role, is at least a sweet-looking waif, but David Garlick, while talented, brings an excess of showbiz knowhow to the Artful Dodger's cloying anthem, ''Consider Yourself.'' In the rest of the large supporting cast, the only delight is Sarah E. Litzsinger, a 12-year-old urchin who shines in her brief verse of the charming number ''I'd Do Anything.''
Some of the other more enjoyable songs in the score, such as ''Who Will Buy?'' and ''Food, Glorious Food,'' are defeated by what seems to be Mr. Coe's lack of enthusiasm for his task of historic preservation. The director hasn't bothered to shake the mothballs off his original staging; the company looks tired and, as miked, sounds disembodied. The Victorian crowd scenes, with their roving peddlers and boulevardiers, are so mechanical that we wonder if Mr. Coe isn't remembering ''Oliver!'' as it looked at the end, rather than the outset, of its five-year-plus West End run.
Mr. Moody was Fagin both in the original London cast and in the 1968 film version. (That film, as directed by Carol Reed and choreographed by Onna White, is one of the rare Hollywood adaptations to improve upon a stage musical.) In Mr. Bart's mellow reading of Dickens, Fagin is more a lovable curmudgeon than a child-exploiting criminal; Mr. Moody responds with authentic, old-time vaudeville gusto that simultaneously suggests the disparate traditions of English Christmas pantomimes and Tevye in ''Fiddler on the Roof.'' As Nancy, a scarlet woman with a heart of gold, Miss LuPone is neither warm nor convincingly English, but her big voice and vulgar Broadway bravado are so invigorating in these surroundings that only an ingrate would complain. When she sings ''As Long as He Needs Me,'' it's the last word on this show's most famous song - or at least one hopes it is.