Filichia Features: Reviewing the Situation of Oliver! JR.

Filichia Features: Reviewing the Situation of Oliver! JR.

Now that Oliver! has come into the Music Theatre International fold, can an Oliver! JR. be far behind?

They’re working on it – “they” being Marty Johnson, Timothy Allen McDonald and Cindy Ripley, three of the driving forces of iTheatrics, an organization intent on “making the world safe for children and theatre everywhere.”

The three respectively adapted, directed and musical-directed a 70-minute version of the show that won a Best Score Tony Award and later became an Oscar-winning Best Picture. Last weekend, they gave Oliver! JR. a staged reading in New York.

Wouldn’t the very idea of a musical have shocked Charles Dickens, who’d started it all in 1837 with Oliver Twist? Song ‘n’ dance doesn’t seem a natural fit for the story of a boy who’s thrown out of an orphanage, winds up homeless, falls in with the wrong crowd and is arrested for stealing.

At least that was the conventional wisdom until Lionel Bart thought Master Twist’s story could be musicalized. He followed through with a show that became a London smash in 1960 and a Broadway hit in 1963.

Now what the iTheatrics Three did may not be the final product available to all of you when Oliver! JR. is finally licensed. This was a pilot project, a workshop just to see Johnson’s version on its feet – and on the 90 very young feet of 45 mostly middle-school-aged boys and girls. How dolefully they tromped onto the stage as poor souls consigned to a workhouse where they’re fed little but gruel – and little gruel at that.

They sat at four long tables of the school cafeteria variety. As time went on, however, these tables were upended and placed on their horizontal sides to create makeshift flats from behind which various characters could pop up.

This was a coed workhouse (yours probably will be, too), for plenty of girls peppered the cast. Both they and the boys looked down-and-out until they reached Lionel Bart’s smart lyric in “Food, Glorious Food” when they imagined enduring indigestion. Yes, a stomach ache would be worth the pain if a sumptuous meal had preceded it.

Some of the older student actors played workhouse wardens who doled out the (imaginary) slop. They adopted the high-and-mighty attitudes that they’ve undoubtedly seen at school from stuck-up kids who are either handsome, beautiful or adept on diamonds, courts, gridirons and rinks. What indignant looks they gave Oliver when he dared ask for seconds.

Although today’s teens and tweens are far removed from the Dickensian era, they were easily able to play the scene in which the orphans tell the warden Oliver’s name. They know they’ll be safe for a while if the authorities are busy punishing him. And yet, some of the young actors -- although McDonald wisely made sure not all of them -- were able to switch gears and sympathized or even empathized with Oliver's plight. They knew that tomorrow or even later today they could very well be the next ones in the hot seat.

The young lad portraying Oliver showed the shame of being expelled from the workhouse and apprenticed to a funeral parlor. (When you flunk orphanage, you’re really in trouble.) How increasingly morose he became when he learned that the workhouse wardens you know are better than the undertakers you don't know. With a flash of his eyes, we saw the moment that made him decide to run for his life. No home would be better than this funeral home.

And the name of this accomplished little actor playing Oliver? I’m unable to tell you. The policy of iTheatrics is to list every child alphabetically in the program and not divulge who plays what role. This is the ultimate way of saying “There are neither small parts nor small actors.”

So although I can’t praise by name everyone who did so splendidly, I can say that each young performer who had even one solo line sounded convincing. Cockney accents are among the easiest to master, aren’t they?

Dropping “h’s” everywhere was the boy playing Fagin, the ne’er-do-well who oversees a bunch of pre-adolescent thieves. This Fagin reminded us that those who victimize children start out oh-so-charming and only later show their true colors – often black-hearted and bull-cape red furious in their violent demands. Oliver came to see that Fagin could be as malicious as the workhouse wardens.

There’s a moment late in the show when Fagin muses "It's a terrible thing, old age." Saying it was a boy who has a good five decades to go before he reaches Social Security. Now usually when a youngster references old age in a children’s theater production, the audience laughs heartily at the absurdity of it. Not here, because this Fagin was so into his role we didn’t want to even let out a chuckle. If he heard us laugh, he might have inferred that he hadn’t done well with the lyric. By then he’d earned so much respect of this packed house that we didn’t want to risk making him feel bad.

This boy also made us see that if Fagin had had the advantages of higher-borns, he just might have become a good teacher and mentor. Nancy, girlfriend to Bill Sikes -- one of Fagin’s boys grown to manhood -- puts herself down as “the likes of such as me” and certainly has self-esteem issues. But it’s society that’s made her less than she could have been had she gotten a few breaks along the way.

Bill Sikes could be the reincarnation of the Marquis de Sade. Because he’s a man of few words, this is a good entry-level role for a boy who hasn’t been on stage much or at all. Perhaps catering to this possibility, Johnson reapportioned Sikes’ one song “My Name” to the chorus, changing it to “His Name,” although Sikes did retain the B-section.

As for the songs, anyone playing Mr. Bumble in Oliver! JR. would have to learn at an early age how disappointing life can be, for his solo (“Boy for Sale”), duet (“I Shall Scream” with Widow Corney) and production number (“That’s Your Funeral,” with the married undertakers) were all excised. But Johnson was able to keep the rest of the songs at least in part. “As Long As He Needs Me” lost its verse and “Oom-Pah-Pah” was reduced to its first 13 lines.

After the presentation McDonald requested audience feedback and was asked by one gentleman why “Oom-Pah-Pah” had been so short-changed. “Have you ever really looked at the lyrics?” McDonald asked, not confrontationally, but instructively. He has a point: drunkenness, prostitution and spousal abuse dominate the subsequent sections.

A woman in the audience took issue with Johnson’s having Bill merely throw Nancy to the ground and not kill her, which he does both in Dickens and the original musical. Weren’t they being untrue to the authors’ intentions?

That’s when I spoke up. Back in the 19th century, literature often had a woman who lived even slightly outside the law punished by death. (It happened to Marlene Dietrich’s character in the film of Destry Rides Again, too.) Now we can center on the fact that when Nancy is put to the test, she decides to do the right thing in protecting Oliver, knowing that she risks Bill’s severe wrath by doing so. I say she deserves to live.

But Bill? A teacher stated that her principal would not approve a show in which a character – even one as nefarious as Sikes – was killed by a gunshot. McDonald said that other possibilities are still on the table, including having him simply caught and arrested. (Good idea!)

Nevertheless, the audience response throughout the show proved that we were, to paraphrase a lyric in “Consider Yourself,” taking to Oliver! JR. so strong. And if my reviewing the situation refreshed your memory of Lionel Bart’s still-viable hit, you might even decide not to wait for Oliver! JR. Go ahead; get your adult, young adult and child actors together and do the whole show right now.

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at