Who doesn’t love Oliver!? Every single song in this musical is an earworm (in a good way), and the Dickens tale of an orphan boy who finds love manages to break your heart and then patch it back together with hope.
I’ve watched many different productions of Oliver!, both in the theater and on film, and I have to say that Adventure Theatre’s version, on stage now at Round House Bethesda, ranks at the top. And the reason can be summed up in two words: Felicia Curry.
The actress hits it out of the park as Nancy, the thief with a heart of gold and really bad taste in men. She’s tough and charismatic and when she’s on stage you don’t really look at anyone else. If I were Bill Sykes, I’d be afraid of disrespecting her. But he does, and that’s the part where the musical turns dark.
This production is a milestone and a departure for Adventure Theatre-MTC, the first full-length two-act play in the theater’s history. (The company is usually known for one-act, youth-oriented shows, performed at Glen Echo Park.)
I didn’t quite absorb that fact when I brought along my five-year-old son to the show. I somehow thought it was going to be a “kiddie-fied” version of Oliver!. You know, where they kind of gloss over the undertone of violence and the climactic murder. They don’t. Nancy’s murder takes place on stage, though it’s not gory or anything. The beating is stylized enough that my son whispered to me reassuringly, “He’s not really hitting her with the club, he’s just hitting the ground.” He jumped when the police fired the “gunshots” that kill Bill Sykes, though immediately after he said to me, “Those aren’t real guns. They just make a sound.”
That being said, the production is well worth braving a slightly intense second act for a musical that is full of great tunes, from “Food, Glorious Food” to “Oom-Pah-Pah.” The young cast make for an extraordinarily tight ensemble, totally nailing the lively choreography. I especially loved the cool steampunk costumes everyone wore.
At the heart of it all is the unwaveringly sincere Oliver, played by rising fifth-grader Franco Cabanas. His sweet voice makes the signature song “Where Is Love?” soar.
The jam-packed plot moves swiftly: Oliver dares to ask for more food at the workhouse, which leads him to be sold to an undertaker’s. He manages to escape and comes to the attention of the Artful Dodger, who brings him to Fagin, the head of a group of pickpockets. They train Oliver in the arts of thievery but on his first outing, Oliver gets caught. The kindly gentleman, however, takes him home where his housekeeper nurses Oliver back to health. Mr. Brownlow sees a resemblance between Oliver and his deceased daughter, but before he can tell Oliver, the boy is spirited back to Fagin by Nancy. She immediately regrets it, though, and arranges to return Oliver to Mr. Brownlow at London Bridge that evening. Thinking she has betrayed him, Bill Sykes tracks them down and kills her but he himself is killed in a gunfight with police. Oliver is reunited with Mr. Brownlow, his real grandfather, and finds home at last.
The production’s last image leaves food for thought: a young boy, wearing a gas mask Bill Sykes had on when he first appeared onstage, comes across Sykes’s cudgel and picks it up. He stands there looking out at the audience. It’s an ominous final image – but one more indication that this production is an uncompromising take on a beloved classic.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Oliver! The Musical runs through August 16, 2015, at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Tickets are $35 for students and $45 for adults. Performances Fri. at 7 p.m., Sat. and Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m.
- The show runs 2 hours plus a 15-minute intermission.
- There’s street parking as well as metered parking in the garage on Waverley Street. Parking in the Waverley garage is free on weekends.
- Photo One: Felicia Curry as Nancy, Rick Hammerly as Fagin, and Franco Cabanas as Oliver.
- Photo Two: Franco Cabanas as Oliver.
- Photos by DJ Corey Photography at The Graham Georgetown.