An Oliver! revival in which Fagin emerges as the most appealing character? For this fully staged revival of Lionel Bart’s 1960 hit, a bit of rejiggering by director Lear DeBessonet plus a bravura performance by Raúl Esparza as the definitive miser—Esparza skews more protective than exploitative—go a long way toward ameliorating a literary figure long acknowledged to be the most egregious example of 19th-century antisemitism. Dickens himself tried to dial back his heinous caricature in later editions and on tour, but the damage was done.
For this fresh and bouncy revival, the entire production team has done their best to deliver an almost lovable Fagin. His complexion may be sallow, his hair (by Cookie Jordan) stringy, but it suits the character (pickpockets’ lairs are not known for their hygiene). Toward the denouement in Act 2, music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell elicits some exquisite melodies from violinist Robert Zubrycki that come across more Roma that Middle Eastern.
Esparza employs no particular accent beyond Cockney; his many iterations of “my dear” are soft and come across as authentically solicitous. This Fagin appears genuinely protective with regard to the boys, especially Oliver (Benjamin Pajak), newly recruited off the street by the Artful Dodger (delightful Julian Lerner, a fresh-faced charmer instead of the usual scheming punk). If you’ve suffered through enough adenoidal pre-adolescent renditions of “Where Is Love?” to last a lifetime, you’re in for a rare treat: Pajak sings the ballad beautifully, believably, leading up to a long-held closing note that elicits pure pleasure. En passant, his fellow junior felons exhibit some serious acrobatic skills in the dance numbers choreographed by Lorin Latarro.
It’s always a good idea to start off a show with surefire pros like Brad Oscar and Mary Testa, who play the unfeeling monsters who run the workhouse where we first encounter Oliver begging for “more?” (note the hesitant question mark). As Widow Corney, Testa draws on every octave of her considerable range in pretending to fend off the Beadle’s overtures while welcoming them. The irony is not lost when she rhapsodizes about her preferred wards: a litter of kittens “so happy, so cheerful, so frolicsome.” Alas, we won’t see this callous pair again till show’s end, in an amusing mini-portrait of connubial non-bliss.
Lilli Cooper makes for a robust Nancy: she looks like someone who could give as good as she gets. When the much-bruited-about crimelord Bill Sikes (Tam Mutu) finally makes his appearance toward the end of Act 1, he looks about as menacing as a grumpy accountant. It’s difficult to see the attraction; still, “he’s mine, and I’m his,” Nancy tells Fagin before ripping into the reprise of “As Long As He Needs Me,” the ultimate doormat anthem—which she delivers resplendently. The show is advertised as suitable for ages 10 and up, but perhaps it should come with a warning for young girls: do not try this at home, or you’re in for a life of miserable martyrdom (provided you survive).
“Reviving” implies pumping the life back into a project, and City Center’s “encores” often turn out to be Broadway previews. It’s hard to picture this one easily making the leap, though: sexual politics have, thankfully, evolved somewhat in the past six decades.. An interesting twist, though, is the way in which Fagin’s agenda—repurposing the obscenely excessive wealth of the rich—doesn’t appear especially radical in this rendition.
Oliver! opened May 3, 2023, at City Center and runs through May 14. Tickets and information: nycitycenter.org