WATERTOWN — There are a number of strengths in New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Oliver!’’ — and a glaring weakness in the last place you would expect it.
That would be the performance by Austin Pendleton, a nationally respected veteran of stage and screen who is by far the best-known member of the New Rep cast, with credits that include originating the role of Motel the tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof’’ on Broadway in 1964.
In the crucial role of Fagin, the leader of a gang of young pickpockets in Victorian London, Pendleton delivers an uncertain, shapeless portrayal in “Oliver!’’ Now, anyone can have an off night, and that might be all it was for Pendleton on Monday. But his wobbly Fagin lacked the force of personality needed to really establish the strangeness, seediness, and volatility of the new world of the streets in which young Oliver finds himself. Pendleton’s hesitancy in delivering his lines seemed to throw off the rhythms of his fellow cast members, breaking the show’s momentum at a couple of key points.
And the production’s aforementioned strengths? Chief among them is the directorial and choreographic debut at New Rep of Michael J. Bobbitt. The former head of an award-winning children’s theater in Maryland who recently became artistic director of the Watertown-based company, Bobbitt infuses “Oliver!’’ with enough brio to almost justify that exclamation point in the title.
Almost. While Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist’’ is tuneful in a generic sort of way, it is far from a classic. But in a holiday season when we’re awash in adaptations of another Dickens tale (you know the one), it was a shrewd move by New Rep to deliver up this family-friendly musical as an alternative.
(However, a cautionary note to parents: Very young children are likely to be disturbed by a scene of violence by thuggish thief Bill Sikes against his girlfriend, Nancy. New Rep recommends the show for ages 8 and up.)
With songs like “Consider Yourself’’ hearkening back to the tradition of the British music hall and lyrics that lean toward uplift, “Oliver!’’ traces the winding, tumultuous journey of an 11-year-old orphan from a workhouse to the pickpocket ring overseen by Fagin to an eventual family reunion whose implausibility can only be called, well, Dickensian. (Thankfully, Bart’s adaptation eliminated the anti-Semitism of Dickens’s portrait of Fagin.)
The pure-voiced Ben Choi-Harris, 12, portrays Oliver, bringing extra poignancy to “Where Is Love?,’’ a solo in which the orphan sings of his yearning for his mother and the hole left by her absence. Eleven-year-old Sydney Johnston makes a vivid impression as the Artful Dodger, adroitly conveying the Dodger’s insouciance and nimble wit.
As Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, the callous-but-comic caretakers of the workhouse, Andy Papas and Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda get this “Oliver!’’ off to a robust start. Bobbitt keeps the stage swirling with activity, mobilizing his talented ensemble in dynamic dance sequences such as the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,’’ and the Act Two opener, “Oom-Pah-Pah,’’ while deploying chairs and tin cups to combined visual and percussive effect. Luciana Stecconi’s Edward Gorey-like set is a treat to behold, with its adjoining, slightly sagging, white-and-black structures evoking 1850 London — a color scheme that is echoed in Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s costumes, with the youth ensemble attired in white shirts, white pants, and black suspenders.
Unfortunately, those young performers are sometimes drowned out by an eight-piece band led by music director Sariva Goetz. While the band performs the score with considerable flair, they need to lower the volume a tad when it’s the turn of the smaller voices to be heard.
There’s nothing small about Rashed Alnuaimi, either in stature or in stage presence. An MFA student at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Alnuaimi seizes the role of the brutal, combustible Bill Sikes from the instant he materializes in “Oliver!’’ His transfixing portrayal constantly makes us aware of how short Sikes’s fuse is — and how rapidly that fuse is burning. Also an asset to this “Oliver!’’ is Daisy Layman as big-hearted, doomed Nancy. Layman’s performance of “As Long As He Needs Me’’ is a showstopper, cringe-inducing though it is to hear Nancy’s profession of devotion to the man who routinely brutalizes her.
As for Pendleton, it should be noted that he did rally near the end of “Oliver!’’ on Monday night. As he performed “Reviewing the Situation,’’ a song in which a newly introspective Fagin ponders what he has made of his life and whether a different one might be possible, Pendleton seemed finally to be finding the key to his character.
Book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Directed and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Dec. 29. Tickets start at $25, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.