Washington-area audiences get treated to their second production of Oliver! this year, as Arena Stage presents this irresistibly hummable musical for the holiday season. (Adventure Theatre-MTC staged its own steampunk take on Oliver! this past summer at Round House Theater.)
The twist in Arena’s production of Oliver Twist? A melding of Victorian and contemporary London in look, sound, and sensibility. Fagin’s thieves live somewhere in the modern London Underground, the songs have updated radio-play beats, and characters take selfies on cell phones.
But the dialogue and the story remain the same: an orphan boy (played by Northern Virginia fourth-grader Jake Heston Miller) dares to ask for more food at his workhouse, gets sold to an undertaker, escapes, and comes across a savvy street kid named the Artful Dodger, who introduces him to Fagin, the leader of a pack of young pickpockets. Oliver also meets Nancy, a brassy young woman who serves as both pal and den mother to the street kids. Nancy is in love with Bill Sykes, a feared gangster with a short temper. (“He’s bad news! Dump him!” you just want to yell at her.)
On his first outing as a pickpocket, Oliver gets caught for something he didn’t do. The intended victim, Mr. Brownlow, takes pity on him, and takes him home instead of pressing charges. Struck by Oliver’s likeness to his long lost daughter, Mr. Brownlow and his housekeeper nurse Oliver back to health. Nancy is strong-armed by Bill to spirit Oliver back to Fagin’s, but she immediately regrets her decision. She tells Mr. Brownlow to meet her at London Bridge at midnight so that she can bring Oliver back to him. Bill follows her and, believing she has betrayed him, stabs her and runs off with Oliver. But Mr. Brownlow alerts the police, who
Well-loved tunes punctuate the action, from “Oom Pah Pah” to “Where is Love?” There’s not a weak voice in the bunch. The dancing makes you too want to get up and dance.
But my nine-year-old daughter did wonder why the play wasn’t called Nancy! or Fagin! since, she said, Oliver didn’t seem the main part of the story. I agreed with her that the “adults” – such as workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble and the widow Corney, and the undertaker couple Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry – really grabbed the spotlight, mining the (adult) comic potential in each scene they were in. My daughter asked me a couple times why I was laughing.
The zippy pace of the production and the sprawling story also meant that there wasn’t a lot of time to linger on a poignant moment, before the characters had to launch into the next song or dance number or plot development.
The most tragic plot development, Nancy’s murder, happens above the stage on a catwalk, and my daughter said she didn’t find it graphic or scary. But I found the “Boy for Sale” scene more disturbing than I remember from past productions I’ve seen. Maybe the contemporary setting gave the scene a more sinister atmosphere of child endangerment than a traditional production did. Maybe this Oliver seemed more vulnerable. Whatever the reason, it does jolt the audience into the now – working, as director Molly Smith writes in the playbill, to “open up hearts to the plight of the homeless in our city.”
I’d recommend this production for a mature nine and up. Older kids will love this grunge Oliver! – and parents will love its holiday message of compassion for the less fortunate.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Oliver! runs through January 3, 2016, at Arena’s Fichandler Stage. Tickets are $50-$99. Discount tickets include pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, family fun packs, and military discounts.
- Performance dates are Sun., Tues., and Weds. at 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8 p.m. Sat. and Sun. matinee at 2 p.m.
- The run time for the show is two hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.
- Onsite parking at the Arena garage is $19 if booked in advance, $22 on the day of performance. There is metered street parking as well. The nearest Metro is Waterfront, on the Green line.
- The onsite Catwalk Café offers self-serve fare inspired by current productions. Options include Oliver’s Tikka Masala and “Bubble and Squeak” (traditional English dish of mashed potatoes and sautéed cabbage).
- For the 2015/16 season, Arena Stage is collaborating with Martha’s Table for a season-long book drive. The theater aims to collect at least 2,400 books to build home libraries for children served through Martha’s Table’s Healthy Start program. There’s a book collection receptacle located just inside the main entrance at Visitor Services at the Mead Center.
- Arena’s other family-friendly play for the holidays, Akeelah and the Bee, runs through December 27.
- Photo One: Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver!
- Photo Two: Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver!
- Photo Three: Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and the company of Oliver!
- Photos by Margot Schulman.