Lucy Godinez was a stand out as Nancy in the Marriott Theater production of Oliver!
Last Friday my wife Kathy and I took in a production of the Oliver! at the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Illinois. As usual, this purveyor of polished performances by accomplished professional casts staged in the round presented a solid evening of entertainment with a large cast of both children and adults belting out a basketful of familiar tunes from spritely to plaintive. Veteran regional theater actor William Brown was an energetic and sympathetic Fagan. Diminutive Kai Edgar at first seemed almost too small to play 9 year old Oliver Twist but that lent credence to the character’s naïveté and vulnerability plus he had real singing and acting chops. But the standout of the evening was Lucy Godinez as Nancy— a powerhouse of a singer so good that it was hard to believe that we saw her not long ago at the same theater in the very different role as Ariel in Footloose! Both of us would heartily recommend catching this fine show.
I am no stranger of Oliver! 53 years ago Niles West High School theater director Eileen Zelznick cast me as Mr. Bumble. It was a natural fit—I had a loud if untrained bass baritone voice, plenty of natural padding, and officious bluster. It was a great part. I got to sing the title song, the comic relief duet with Mrs. Corney I Shall Scream, and Boy for Sale. The later I belted out walking down a curved staircase on a revolving turntable dragging the struggling title character with me. In dress rehearsals and four performances I managed to get both of us to the bottom without a catastrophic tumble, but it was a very close thing.
I was a perfectly officious Mr. Bumble.
Since then I have seen at least one other high school production, a community theater staging at the Woodstock Opera House, and of course the 1968 Academy Award winning film both on the big screen and on television.
The origin of the story was Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress which was published in 24 serial instalments from 1837 to 1839 and in a bound volume in 1839. It was the young journalist and story teller’s second novel following up on the success of The Pickwick Papers. It was an enormous success cementing the author’s reputation and following and was admired by young Queen Victoria herself.
But it was a bleak tale exposing the cruel treatment of the many orphans, they hypocrisy and corruption of church charity, the exploitation of child labor, the semi-slavery of the apprenticeship system, and the criminal underbelly of London’s teeming, gin soaked slums.
Oliver Twist asked for "More please, sir."
Dickens would go on to tell stories of young lads climbing from poverty or social disadvantage to respectability in novels like Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. But those stories reflected the author’s own successful climb from a ruined middle class youth forced into disgrace and drudgery of an apprenticeship at a boot black manufacturer to success, wealth, and social standing.
Although Oliver Twist’s story culminated with him restored to the benign care of his long lost gentleman grandfather, it ended with him still a child, albeit one of brighter prospects. But for most of the novel the boy’s life was one almost unending abuse, exploitation, and loneliness. Dickens pulled no punches in his exposé and it was far less sentimental than his later Victorian set pieces.
Oliver’s mother Agnes died during childbirth at a provincial work house, her past shrouded in mystery. Her son was sent to a parish “baby farm” under the terms of the Poor Law where he was ill-cared for and starved until he was sent to the children’s workhouse at the age of 9.
There he was put to work picking and weaving oakum, a course fiber used in ship calking. The boys were sustained only by meager portions of thin gruel because the managers of the workhouse—Mr. Bumble the Beadle, the Anglican parish constable charged with duties of charity and Mrs. Corney the matron skimp on food rations to pocket some of the allowances of the Parish House Board, Christian gentlemen with disdain for their charges as foundlings, bastards, and street urchins. Oliver was selected by lot among the boys to beg for more food. He famously approached Bumble with the plaintive plea “Please, sir, I want some more.” Then all hell broke loose and Oliver was cast, unprepared, into a cruel world.
First bound to a tyrannical chimney sweep, he ends up being sold to Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker who because of the boy’s sorrowful countenance, used him as a mourner at children’s funerals among other duties. Although the undertaker treated the lad marginally better and allowed him to sleep amid the caskets, he was abused by Sowerberry’s wife, a young maid servant, and an older jealous apprentice named Noah Claypole. The older boy taunted Oliver about his dead mother and called her, “a regular right-down bad ‘un” causing the young boy to furiously attack the much larger one. All the rest turned on the boy, beat him savagely, and locked him in a casket until Mr. Bumble arrived the next day furious that he must pay back Oliver’s price and once again take custody of him. The Beadle gave him another thrashing, but Oliver managed to escape and flee the 70 miles to London.
The Artful Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagan in an original illustration from Oliver Twist.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Upon arriving in the City Oliver encounter a seemingly sympathetic older boy, Jack Dawkins known as The Artful Dodger who lured him to the lair of Fagan who he described as a kindly man who will be happy to take him in and care for him. Fagan, of course, was a criminal who presided over a boy gang of pickpockets and thieves. Fagan took weeks to win the confidence of the boy, who remained blindly unaware of the criminal enterprise around him and to groom him to be part of the gang.
Fagan was an elderly Jew with all of guile, surface charm, and greed of the common societal stereotype. He was described by Dickens and portrayed in illustrations as having a lean lupine appearance with long matted hair, straggly unkempt beard, and an exaggerated hooked nose. Dickens may have been among England’s most liberal men and as befitting his Unitarian upbringing been an ardent proponent of religious toleration, but he was not immune from the pervasive anti-Semitism of his time. Fagan the Jew was an out-and-out scoundrel and villain.
Oliver was finally sent out with The Artful Dodger and another boy, Charley, to be broken into crime himself. The result was a disaster. The Dodger and Charley lifted handkerchief of an old gentleman, Mr. Brownlow promptly fled. Brownlow turned round, spotted only Oliver running away in fright, and gave chase with other bystanders who pursued and captured him. Hauled before the magistrate, Oliver aroused the sympathy of Brownlow after a bookstall holder testified that it was the Dodger who purloined the handkerchief. Cleared of the crime Oliver fainted with illness and was carried to Brownlow’s home to be tended with care.
Meanwhile the Dodger reported Oliver’s capture and Fagan, fearing that the boy will expose his lair and enterprise, enlisted the aid of Bill Sikes, one of his former pickpockets who had graduated to become a notorious and feared burglar and bullyboy, and his doxy, a young lass named Nancy who was both a gin house favorite and a sympathetic friend to the boys. Reluctantly, Nancy agreed to help lure Oliver to where Sykes could seize him.
Brownlow rapidly grew fond of the boy and when he was recovered showed his faith in him by sending him on an errand to the lending library with books to return and a 5£ note to pay for more. Before he could get to the library, Nancy intercepted him and abeted his kidnapping by Sykes. Dragged back to Fagan Oliver was stripped of his fine new clothes, beaten yet again and forced into crime. Sykes threatened to kill him if he did not cooperate and Nancy secretly assured the boy that she will protect him if she can. Oliver was forced to crawl through a window so that he could open the door for Sykes to commit his burglary, but he was discovered and shot in the arm by someone. Abandoned by Sikes, the wounded Oliver makes it back to the house and ends up under the care of the people he was supposed to rob Rose Maylie.
Meanwhile a mystery man named Mr. Monk, apparently related to Oliver in some way, encouraged Fagan to continue his search for the boy and then turns up back in the town where he was raised to question Mr. Bumble about his origins. After being paid by Monk the former Mrs. Corney, now unhappily married to Bumble, revealed what she knows about Agnes and sold him a locket and ring stolen from the woman after giving birth that would prove Oliver’s identity. Monks threw the evidence into a river. Monks reported to Fagan and Nancy overheard a new plot to seize the boy.
Bill Sikes murders Nancy.
Guilty over her part in Oliver’s predicament Nancy found Rose Maylie in London to meet again with Maylie and Mr. Brownlow to tell them both all she knew. But before Nancy can make the rendezvous an enraged Sykes thinking she will betray him to authorities, beat her to death in a fit of rage that very night and fled to the countryside to escape from the police and his conscience. He returned to London to find a hiding place, planned to steal Fagin’s secret cache of jewels and silver, and to escape flee to France, only to die by accidentally hanging himself while attempting to lower himself from a rooftop to flee from a mob angry at Nancy’s murder.
Dickens wrapped up his tale with a string of revealed coincidences. Monk turned out to be Oliver’s half-brother, another son of Edwin Leeford, a former friend of Brownlow. Edwin had fallen in love with Agnes, and after Edwin and Monks’ mother had separated left to help a dying friend in Rome, and then died there himself, leaving Agnes, “his guilty love.” A disgrace to her family and unaware of the fate of Leeford, Agnes found herself alone, impoverished, and forced to give birth in the workhouse. But Leeford had left an inheritance that Monk hoped to come in full possession of with Oliver eliminated. All of this Brownlow forced Monk to confess, happily confirming his growing suspicion that Oliver was his grandson.
Rose Maylie turned out to be Agnes’ long-lost sister, Brownwell’s daughter, and thus Oliver’s aunt who had married her sweetheart Harry Maylie, who gave up his political ambitions to become an Anglican parson. Oliver lived on happily with Mr. Brownlow, who adopted him.
A happy ending to all. Except for Monks who fled to the New World after being exposed where he squandered the inheritance that Oliver let him have reverted to crime, and died in prison; The Artful Dodger who was deported to the Australian penal colonies for stealing a snuff box; the Bumbles who lost their positions and were reduced to poverty, ending up in the workhouse themselves; and Fagan who was sentenced to hang.