Let’s begin with the most obvious—and most useful—information: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s “Oliver Twist” is not the familiar Broadway musical.
Nor is it a simple Classics Illustrated treatment of the fabled novel by Charles Dickens.
For most of us, Neil Bartlett’s elaborate adaptation is an entirely novel way to experience a great novel, with all its lush language, descriptive beauty and well-drawn characters experiencing one gripping plot turn after another. This is accomplished by a crack troupe of 13 actors who play multiple roles, sing, play musical instruments and execute seamless transitions from scene to scene with the precision and artistry of a ballet.
In the hands of director Brian B. Crowe, a master at staging physical movement, Bartlett’s dazzlingly entertaining journey extends to the theater aisles. He runs his cast through quick costume changes and frequently marches them in and out of the room through the lobby doors, so much so that the audience is occasionally tricked into thinking they are outnumbered by the players.
The result is a marvelous theater experience that surrounds you with almost too many pleasures to take in at once. Pay attention to the dialogue and you might miss the clever scene changes in the back. Watch the actors hitting their countless marks, flipping tables into poster beds, and you may not fully appreciate a gut-wrenching monologue. And if you have an aisle seat, keep your feet in front of you.
If that sounds like criticism, it is not. These are good problems to have. Worst-case scenario, like a Springsteen concert, one performance may not be enough to fully appreciate this enthralling spectacle.
Brian J. Ruggaber’s single set—an early-industrial space with large transom windows on the second floor and a single ladder-staircase to the woody stage—is augmented by banners, curtains and versatile props into effective representations of the novel’s mostly sordid locales. In some cases, the setting is transformed by moving some boxes around. Other transitions are more ingenious, such as the long plank held aloft by two actors that becomes the bench for a panel of fussy powder-wig judges, who magically pop out of the background ensemble and disappear almost as quickly as they arrive.
The only actor who stays in single character is Quentin McCuiston, who, at age 31, is beyond the ability to play a 10-year-old urchin. Wisely, Bartlett and Crowe do not ask him to. Instead, he focuses on sharing his pain, sadness, desperation and hunger—when he says he’s hungry, you feel the hunger.
The enduring popularity of “Oliver Twist,” though, is its abundance of memorable characters, and their stories swirl around McCuiston’s empathetic performance. Ames Adamson is a mass of conflicting emotions as Fagin, the criminal ringleader who seems to genuinely love his gang of adolescent pickpockets, but has no qualms about threatening any of those who would cross him. With expressive eyes dancing over his graying beard, Adamson wears his character’s primary emotion—an abject fear of being poor and alone in his old age.
Like Adamson, Jeffrey M. Bender is a company veteran and a versatile character actor. Known more for his comic roles, Bender’s range is put to the test here, starting out as the hilariously evil Mrs. Sowerberry, affecting a Monty Python-esque drag queen in full Victorian glory, complete with pasty skin and dark eyes stolen from a Tim Burton movie.
Several costume changes later, Bender bends into the psychopathic crime lord Bill Sikes, those dark eyes menacingly burning anyone who catches his stare, onstage or in the audience.
Longtime company members Eric Hoffman and Andy Paterson also make welcome returns in several roles, Hoffman most memorably as the henpecked lout Mr. Bumble and Paterson as Charley, the cackling thief.
Robbie Collier Sublett, in his fourth year with the company, gives a breakout performance as the Artful Dodger and as an informal narrator, who describes the scenes about to unfold in Dickens' own words, occasionally reading directly from the book. Other characters occasionally do this as well.
The ladies in the cast also make a fine impression, particularly Corey Tazmania as Nancy, the fated girlfriend of Bill Sikes who pays dearly for succumbing to compassion. Tina Stafford, meanwhile, is sharp in several roles and also plays a mean accordion, sometimes with delightfully amusing results.
George Abud joins Stafford in performing Kris Kukul’s original music, fiddling his way through several scenes. The ensemble also joins for some brief but marvelous choral singing, with Sound Designer Steven L. Beckle adding an eerie echo to one of the brief but stirring songs.
Combine all the complementary elements of this production and the result is a feast for both Dickens and theater fans to gorge on. Try to catch an early performance to give you a chance to attend another.
“Oliver Twist” runs through Oct. 7 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. at Drew University, Madison. Tickets are $32 to $70. For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.