This is a re-engineered edition of the original Broadway Cast recording of Oliver! from 1962. It is marketed as a ‘Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition’, with bonus tracks and an interview with Donald Pippin, the musical director of the production. The packaging is in ‘book’ format rather than the standard jewel case which means that it does run the risk of flopping open and the CD falling out. Also the orange and brown colour scheme does it no favours.
However, there is a nicely produced booklet on the inside with the cast & track listings, a synopsis of the show, plus some background information about various productions and some photographs of the cast in rehearsal.
As remastered recordings go this is very good quality. The reproduction is very clean and crisp with the orchestration especially coming across as nice and rich. The voices suffer a bit in comparison, lacking some bass which occasionally makes the singing sound a little reedy.
This is the first time I have listened to Oliver! in any form for a while and it was a pleasure to be reminded what a sprightly and engaging soundtrack it is.
There is little overture to speak of and the show really gets started with the orphan boys’ chorus ‘Food Glorious Food’. Given the age of the singers this is not the easiest song to produce, but the unison parts of the song are pretty good. The individual voices are less good; there are too many suspiciously Bronx-sounding accents for an English orphanage!
The first appearance of the principal cast is in ‘Oliver!’ with Bruce Prochnik as Oliver Twist (although not singing here), Willoughby Goddard as Mr Bumble and Hope Jackman as Mrs Cornery. The older cast members are fine in this brisk piece and also play the comedy well in ‘I Shall Scream’ where Mr Bumble woos the future Mrs Bumble.
The basic weakness of Goddard’s voice is brought to the forefront in ‘Boy for Sale’. This is the most operatic song in the show and needs a fairly rich tenor to do it justice. Alas Goddard’s voice is toneless and flat throughout. I can only assume that he was cast for his comedic ability, rather than his singing.
‘Where is Love’ is the real test of the voice of the lead character and in this Prochnik succeeds admirably. He has a pretty and tuneful voice and projects the right sense of sweetness and yearning. ‘Consider Yourself’ introduces us to Michael Goodman’s Artful Dodger and again he does a fine job. His voice is a little more rough around the edges than Prochnik, but that is entirely appropriate for the character.
‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ brings us to the first of the key adult characters, Fagin, played by Clive Revill (yes he is the Clive Revill who plays the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back!). Frankly, if you get this casting wrong then you have really blown it. But Revill does the production proud, with an expressive and enjoyable performance and the chorus of boys back him with gusto, if not always complete tunefulness. The same comments hold true for the later ‘Be Back Soon’.
The second principal adult character, Nancy played by Georgia Brown, debuts in ‘It’s a Fine Life’ backed by Alice Playten as Bet. This song outlines the brutishness of the working class existence with philosophical cheeriness and is well performed. Danny Sewell as Bill Sikes gets one solo song, ‘My Name’, making it clear what a nasty and dangerous man he is. While not the most elegantly sung piece in the show, Sewell sings it with the right level of gusto and turns the roughness of his voice into an asset.
‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ plays to the same strengths ‘It’s a Fine Life’, but the real key-note song for Nancy is ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ where she sings of her love for Bill Sikes, despite his seeming indifference. This is a real emotional powerhouse and if performed badly can be a real blot on the production. However Georgia Brown performs this tunefully and expressively and if it is not the best rendition I have heard, it is by no means the worst (on which subject see later).
‘Who Will Buy?’, in which Oliver celebrates his new life after his rescue from poverty, is well enough sung, but does highlight a weakness of the score: all the chorus work seems to be unison. I took the opportunity to check a copy of the vocal score and it is indeed deliberately arranged that way. For the pub singalong style of ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ it does not really matter, but in both ‘Who Will Buy?’ and ‘Consider Yourself’ it seems a wasted opportunity.
The final solo piece, apart from a couple of reprises, is Fagin’s showpiece ‘Reviewing the Situation’. With clever lyrics and a good musical hook it is perhaps one of the most entertaining pieces in an entertaining score and once again Clive Revill carries it off with charm and humour.
So the overall verdict on this recording is that it is a good overall production, with particular standout performances from Bruce Prochnik and Clive Revill, occasionally let down by some of the cast being chosen for their acting rather than their singing.
So what about the bonus tracks? The first three are taken from the original 1960 London Cast recording. First is ‘That’s Your Funeral’, cut from the Broadway recording (although, weirdly, not from the actual production) which is sung by Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker to whom Oliver is sold at the beginning of the show. This is performed (in both productions) by Barry Humphries of Dame Edna Everage fame and he has a surprisingly good voice. You also get a snippet on this track of Paul Whitsun-Jones as Mr Bumble who has a far better voice than his equivalent in the Broadway cast.
This is followed by ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ with Ron Moody as Fagin. I have to confess a bias as I have been familiar with Moody’s performance in the film version since I was a young child, but I think that he just has the edge over Revill with a slightly more expressive performance.
Rounding off the musical extras is a 1993 concert performance of ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ by Patti LuPone who starred as Nancy in a 1986 revival. Here I have to make a blunt confession: the appeal of Patti LuPone as a singer completely escapes me. In this performance, as in other recordings I have heard of her in Les Miserable and Sunset Boulevard, she manages to swallow all her vowel sounds in an unpleasant way. Also, although she hits all her notes, the sound somehow grates. This is the worst performance of the song that I mentioned earlier.
Finally there is the interview with Donald Pippin, the musical director. This gives some interesting insights into the origins of the Broadway production and some of the events that occurred during the production. Unfortunately it also has a certain self-congratulatory tone, particularly when he talks about the superiority of the Broadway production to the original London version, which is not borne out by the quality of the recording.
In conclusion, this is an nicely assembled and remastered edition of an enjoyable production, only let down by a slightly unattractive and impractical CD case.