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'Oliver!' Rough And Ready At Goodspeed

Kids scramble up ladders and across bridges. Muttering, mutton-chopped authority figures wave their staffs (or even their spoons) menacingly. There are drinking songs and horseplay and expressions like “Wot? Fisticuffs!?”

But as a nimble Goodspeed revival proves, “Oliver!” is not all fun and games. In our time, the show simply can not come off as clownish and colorful as it once did. Director Rob Ruggiero (whose previous Goodspeed endeavor was the equally scruffy, old-world urban “Rags”) is facing challenges that didn’t exist when this show was a hit for the first time nearly 60 years ago.

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Even without newer cultural contexts of #metoo, abortion rights and family separation, “Oliver!” hits thematic extremes that you may only be able to roll with if you’re a hardcore Dickens’ fan. The characters may have funny names — Bumble, Sowerberry, Grimwig — but they can be overbearing, coarse, even evil. There are scenes of drunkenness, violence, poverty, kidnapping and death.

Dickens was a dedicated social reformer who used his novels to point out some of the worst aspects of Victorian London in the hope that awareness would bring change. His plots are fanciful, with crazy coincidences and wild adventures, but he doesn’t sugarcoat his observations of poverty and class-based injustice.

It’s a balancing act anyone staging “Oliver!” nowadays must consider. You can’t downplay the incidents of child abuse, spousal abuse, gender inequality and basic inhumanity that darken the same London streets where snappy gents and cute kids merrily dance and sing and tumble about. The song “Boy for Sale” is about indentured servitude, and the female lead gets struck by her lover multiple times.

The show veers from crowded production numbers to fraught dramatic encounters. Ruggiero tries for an overall style that’s earthy and real rather than gaudy or sensational.

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As Goodspeed shows go, this one is mid-level splashy, mid-high bouncy. It’s creepily beautiful rather than pretty. The band is steady without being peppy. The stage is not darkly lit, but the sets are gray. With one of the largest casts in the theater’s history, that multi-level fence- and gate-studded stage can get crowded. The big “Consider Yourself” number pushes Oliver (angelic Elijah Rayman) and his new pal the Artful Dodger (an endearing if rather uptight Gavin Swartz) right out into the auditorium where they gleefully shake hands with members of the audience. The vendors of “Who Will Buy?” call out from the balcony. The sinister Bill Sikes (Brandon Andrus) lurks down the aisles.

This is all to say that “Oliver!” may not be as funny, or as silly, or as cleanly staged, as you remember it. It allows for the unconscionable acts of some of its characters to be genuinely unsettling.

At the same time, if you were traumatized, as many have been, by Oliver Reed’s extra-scary Sikes in the 1968 film version, it’s somehow easier to cope with seeing such a brute live onstage. The Goodspeed’s Sikes is plenty creepy, lean and mean and clad in dark leather, but Andrus (previously seen at Goodspeed in “Camelot” and “Annie Get Your Gun”) makes him a storybook bad guy, even writing his bio blurb in the playbill “If you ever want to ‘Boo’ at me, please do.”

Sikes is so angry, so strong, so vile, that he can barely be humanized. The trickier role is the criminal mastermind Fagin, who’s likable enough to mobilize small boys into an army of pickpockets and charming enough to keep Sikes and others at bay while lining his own pockets with ill-gotten gains. The reliable character actor Donald Corren finds the through line that allows Fagin to be both fun and infernal. All his solo turns — there are several other songs besides his hallmark “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” — are delightful.

As Sikes’ victimized lover Nancy, EJ Zimmerman sizzles through “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-Pah-Pah.” She nearly succeeds in turning “As Long As He Needs Me” from a disturbing ballad of subservience into a slightly milder statement of empowered self-delusion. For those who saw Zimmerman play Christmas Eve in “Avenue Q” at Playhouse on Park last year, it’s not a surprise to see her take another stereotyped female role and imbue it with strength and character. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard to do. Zimmerman doesn’t do winsome or meek; she plays hard, and gives this “Oliver!” a woman to cheer for. There are some outstanding women in the supporting cast as well, including Broadway veterans Joy Hermalyn as the saucy Widow Corney and Karen Murphy as the fussy Mrs. Sowerberry.

Overall, this is a sharp and clear adaptation of Dickens’ novel. “Oliver!” may not be as snappy and cartoonish as it seemed 58 years ago. Times and attitudes have changed. But the story of a child’s survival on the mean streets still has great appeal. Reviving “Oliver!” might not seem like a big challenge, but it is, and the Goodspeed is up for it.

OLIVER! runs at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam, through Sept 13. Tickets are $29 to $79. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org.

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