Everybody knows Lionel Bart's Oliver! is a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' nineteenth-century novel Oliver Twist. But if you're going to see Oliver! at the Muny, you'd better know more than that. For starters, you had best know the plot, because this staging has little interest in telling it. True, there is a terse storyline in the playbill. But vague phrases like "Through it all" are about as helpful as "yada yada yada." It may be that because this melodic account of a starving orphan in Victorian England is so famous a show, the people who mounted this week's Forest Park rendition simply assumed that everyone already knows what happens. If so, that was a mistake.
But not only is this production confusing, it's lifeless. A story rich in character is peopled with remarkably pallid portrayals. In the entire evening there is only one fully realized performance. Early on Oliver is "sold off" to Mr. Sowerberry, the local undertaker. Kari Ely dives into the role of Mrs. Sowerberry, grim death made incarnate, with angularity and venom. She plays the role with Dickensian verve and zest, and for a few minutes we have a glimpse of what the entire production might and should have been.
After young Oliver Twist (Christian Probst) escapes from the Sowerberrys and arrives in London, he meets the villainous Fagin. Thanks to the original Cruiksahank drawings that illustrated Dickens' novel when it was first published in 1837, and more recently to Alec Guinness' lugubrious performance in the 1949 David Lean film version, the greasy, matted look of this scurrilous ringleader of a gang of juvenile pickpockets is well established. But don't expect to see that Fagin here. Bruce Adler's Fagin almost has the appearance of a matinee idol. Adorned in an elaborate dressing gown that in newer days Noel Coward might have coveted, Adler is downright dashing and so different from any other Fagin, he forces the viewer to challenge preconceived notions, which can be refreshing.
But here's the thing about Adler. Although over the years this Muny regular has been cast in many colorful character roles, at heart he's not a character actor. Adler does not immerse himself in his portrayals. It makes no matter whether he's playing Fagin or Tevye or Alfred P. Doolittle, essentially Adler plays himself: Where he and the character intersect, well and good; otherwise the character takes back seat to the same lighthearted, contemporary interpretation. With Adler we've come to know what we're going to see even before he appears onstage. But at some point Adler needs to realize that leading roles have responsibilities. Here, for instance, Fagin is required to set up the first entrance of the doomed Nancy. He doesn't; instead she simply appears in a haze of confusion. Fagin is supposed to set up her song "I'd Do Anything." He doesn't, and the viewer is left to wonder: Why is this strange woman singing, and what is that song about, anyway?
Obviously, many of these problems are inherent in the show itself. Despite its popularity, it's no great shakes of a musical. Songs, melodic though they may be, spill from the stage at a fast and furious sometimes even mindless clip, with little setup. Perhaps this greyhound pace can be attributed to musical director Kelsey Halbert, who seems to be conducting the score with pronounced rapidity. Not that we're complaining. This Oliver! is over by 10:30 p.m., for which we all, to quote Dickens, can be "truly thankful."
Finally, another note of thanks. The second-most immortal line in the novel (after "Please, sir, I want some more.") is the henpecked Mr. Bumble's complaint that if British law assumes that a wife is subservient to her husband, then "the law is a ass." Here, the beadle loudly proclaims, "The law is an idiot." Not quite the same thing, but so much more palatable than Dickens' offensive obscenity. In an evening already given over to murder, kidnapping and child abuse, we can all be truly thankful that the Muny has seen fit to spare our tender ears.