• Post author:
  • Reading time:10 mins read


City Center Encores, NYC, May 13, 2023

Reviewed by Chip Deffaa

I was walking down the street after a friend and I enjoyed the City Center Encores production of Oliver! and I realized that I was singing aloud one of the great songs from that show, “Consider Yourself at Home.” It’s been a long time since I’ve left a theater humming or singing a song from the show that I’d just seen.But Oliver!—with book, music, and lyrics by the late Lionel Bart—boasts such a glorious score, with one wonderfully agreeable number after another. City Center Encores has done an irresistible production which is why I left the theater singing, and I was still singing when I got home.  

Benjamin Pajak
Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s been far too many years since Oliver! has been seen on Broadway. This version of the show is so rewarding, I’d love to see someone transfer it to Broadway, even though I have a few reservations about the production, as is to be expected. (Encores presentations are put together so quickly, there simply is not enough time to fully realize all of the potential in any musical they choose to do.) But so much of this production was done so exceptionally well, that I’d love to see this musical get a proper run on Broadway.   

In the early 1960s, Oliver! was a great hit on stage in both London and New York, and the film adaptation, made in 1968, was a great success as well. But a revival of Oliver! on Broadway in 1984 flopped despite having a glittering cast headed by Ron Moody and Patti LuPone. That revival was mounted during an odd period, when “Golden Age” Broadway musicals that are now recognized as classics, were often being dismissed as “old-fashioned and irrelevant.” (A big Broadway revival of Mame starring Angela Lansbury, for example, also flopped during that same period.)  

The audience responded with tremendous enthusiasm throughout the performance that I attended, and I think this lively family musical, which has lot of heart, could do well today. The script, as adapted by Deborah Stein, moved along quickly, the story told clearly and well. Director Lear Debessonet, choreographer Lorin Latarro, and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell all found the spirit of the show.   

The ensemble looked and sounded great on all of the big numbers. Considering how quickly these Encores presentations are prepared and mounted, it was amazing how polished and together the ensemble numbers were in terms of both singing and dancing. When the Encores series began, performances often seemed more like concerts or staged readings, but the best moments of the performance I saw seemed worthy of a full Broadway production.  

Raul Esparza, Benjamin Pajak, Lilli Cooper, and cast
Photo: Joan Marcus

Heading the strong cast were Raul Esparza as Fagin, Benjamin Pajak as Oliver, Lilli Cooper as Nancy, Julian Lerner as the Artful Dodger, Mary Testa as the Widow Carney, and Brad Oscar as Mr. Bumble. There was much to savor in all of their performances. 

I had already heard what a beautiful singer young Pajak was from people who’d seen him do Oliver! in Florida. That was a well-received production that starred Jon Peterson as Fagin, and I was not disappointed; his singing was pure and touching on “Where Is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” They are not easy songs for a boy to sing, much less to sing well. He handled them with wondrous grace and tonal beauty. You need a fine Oliver for this musical to work, and Pajak was quite endearing.

Lilli Cooper
Photo: Joan Marcus

Fagin, the leader of a band of young pickpockets, is a wonderful role. Over the years I’ve seen wildly different actors (including Brian Stokes Mitchell in an Irish Repertory Theatre concert presentation, Kevin Gray at Connecticut’s Edgerton Center, and John Anthony Lopez at Westchester Broadway Theatre) all find different ways to interpret the role effectively.  

Esparza has been a great favorite of mine since I saw him starring in the original production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! 22 years ago. (I also attended the recording session for the cast album of that show.) I’ve enjoyed his work many times on stage, whether he’s doing Shakespeare, playing Elton John, and starring in the musical Leap of Faith. It’s always a treat to see him on stage.(His Law and Order television work has won him many more fans.) I’m very glad to see him doing any musical—Broadway needs him—and he’s charming and believable throughout this show. 

All of that said, the role of Fagin may not be quite a perfect fit for him. Ideally, the performer playing this role should project, at times, a certain music-hall or vaudeville-type sensibility, and that is not quite in Esparza’s wheelhouse. There were moments that called for a broader vaudevillian playfulness, and he’s not quite there yet. Given a bit more time to rehearse and prepare, he might have been able to find all that the role requires; but he has not yet found its full potential. You also want every kick and prance and shrug to feel organic.

My other reservation (and again, this could well resolve itself with a bit more rehearsal time) is that Esparza has such a naturally likeable personality that he seems like an old friend from his first appearance on stage.  He certainly appears to like the kids working for him and they appear to like him just fine as well. There’s lots of positive energy on the stage from the start. But I think the show as a whole works off better if we initially perceive Fagin as charming but perhaps dangerous, beguiling but somewhat menacing. If we’re not sure about him at the start, if we either wholly like him or feel he’s a threat to those around him, there’s more room for the character to grow, and we would be more surprised and relieved to discover, by the end, that he cares about Oliver’s well-being. Audiences like seeing main characters learn and grow. Creating more tension early on in the show—letting us think that Fagin, although charming, might also be villainous—makes us feel more relief when we realize, by show’s end, that he may have more humanity in him than we suspected. If the role is played a little darker at the start, there’s more room for the character to grow over the course of the play. I enjoyed his performance immensely, but there’s more to be found in the role. 

Brad Oscar and Mary Testa
Photo: Joan Marcus

Mary Testa was just terrific, making much out of relatively little in her supporting role, as she has often done in her career. She and Brad Oscar made their moments count. Julian Lerner was just fine as the Artful Dodger. Lilli Cooper sang “As Long as He Needs Me” with lots of feeling.

What a great group of kids they’ve found for this production. I was delighted just seeing the show’s best young dancers, William Thomas Coilin and Michael Cash, exuberantly and effortlessly do their flips across the stage. Colin, incidentally, is an absolutely first-rate young dancer, and every move he made was precise, decisive, and committed. Even playing a horse pulling a carriage, at the start of “I’d Do Anything,” he was just great; I noted appreciatively how he placed his hands and moved his leg along with the way he shook his head to suggest a horse whinnying; he fully became a horse. He and Cash both filled their moments on stage so terrifically. 

There’s much more to be praised, from the simple but effective scenic design of David Rockwell, to the costumes of Sarafina Bush, and the absolutely perfect sound design of Alex Neumann. (Having seen a couple of important productions this season—Funny Girl and Some Like it Hot—marred by poor sound design, I’m more grateful than ever to attend a show whose sound was so clear, natural, and well-balanced.) This is a big show that the whole family can enjoy. It’s well-paced and has many peak moments. I hope someone can find a way to bring it to Broadway.

Chip Deffaa

Chip Deffaa is the author of 16 published plays and eight published books, and the producer of 24 albums. For 18 years he covered entertainment, including music and theater, for The New York Post. In his youth, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is a graduate of Princeton University and a trustee of the Princeton "Tiger" magazine. He wrote and directed such Off-Broadway successes as "George M. Cohan Tonight!" and "One Night with Fanny Brice." His shows have been performed everywhere from London to Edinburgh to Seoul. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society, NARAS, and ASCAP. He’s won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, the IRNE Award, and a New Jersey Press Association Award. Please visit: www.chipdeffaa.com.