When I think of the professional regional theaters keeping the tradition of classic 20th century musical theater alive and thriving in the 21st, I think of places far from the great urban centers of theater like New York, with its Broadway and several layers of “Off,” or L.A. with its huge hive of stage-ready Hollywood talent. But a few years ago Staten Island, just a 25-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, gave birth to the Harbor Lights Theater Company, the island’s first professional Equity company, where you can see excellent productions while feeling neither bathed in the glitz of Broadway nor plunged into the supercooled darkness of trendy alternative downtown venues. With a home at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Harbor Lights so far seems to be doing right by New York City’s oft-forgotten borough, at least on the strength of its latest production.
Harbor Lights’ current staging of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is impressively full-bodied, with a live orchestra, a large cast with plenty of talent (including several actors with Broadway credits), and some excellent voices. Voices make the difference in this show, a fairly fluffy take on Dickens’s gritty and often grim novel Oliver Twist, because the show’s best quality is Bart’s lovely and memorable score.
It must have seemed fitting back in 1963 that the first British musical to transfer successfully to Broadway be a Dickens tale. Still, the show softens the novel’s hard edges, including its anti-semitic characterization of Fagin (Bart himself was Jewish). The Harbor Lights production smoothes it further, modifying the book and leaving out a few numbers but not the ones everyone knows. It’s in these wonderful songs most of all that we detect Bart’s re-focus on some of the sweeter facets of human nature despite the criminality and violence that survived his theatricalization. The cast brings off these musical treasures with the skill and heart they deserve.
Aside from two or three momentary transitional dead spots, the ensemble numbers vibrate with energy and color, from the opening “Food, Glorious Food,” featuring a phalanx of talented child performers, through “Consider Yourself,” led by a pint-sized force of nature by the name of Jeremiah Burch III, “Pick a Pocket Or Two” featuring the superb Nick Corley as a conniving but minimally threatening Fagin, and the lovely Act II opener “Who Will Buy?” sung by Oliver and a set of beautifully costumed street venders.
The feature numbers, too, show off the talent of director Ray Roderick’s big cast. Andre Gulick, who plays Oliver, has a small but crystalline voice that shines singing “Where Is Love?” Corley makes Fagin’s “Reviewing the Situation” a gem of a character study. A sparkling Laura D’Andre makes ill-fated Nancy the emotional heart of the show in her numerous scenes, including singing the beautiful “As Long As he Needs Me.” The production includes other fine voices too (along with some that are a bit less robust), plus a generally strong, crisply directed, and well-costumed ensemble.
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