Washington must have a thing for Oliver Twist. In the past year, Adventure Theater and Arena Stage have presented their musical versions of the classic Dickens story. And now Kennedy Center weighs in with OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist, showing through February 21 in the Center’s Family Theater.
This isn’t a faithful retelling of the tale, but an original story (by Karen Zacarías) with original songs (by Deborah Wicks La Puma) inspired by Oliver Twist. And it’s set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on New Year’s Eve.
Yeah. Kind of head-scratching. But the play acknowledges the seeming randomness of it: It starts with all the actors on stage thinking they’re supposed to be performing Oliver Twist but wondering why their set isn’t Victorian London. Instead, it looks like a modern-day favela (slum) in Rio, a colorful jumble of houses made of weathered wood and tin sheeting. Plus their main actor is missing – Oliver has an orthodontist appointment.
“This is why I hate children’s theater,” one actor gripes.
But the show must go on – with a willing girl volunteer taking the part of Oliver, now renamed Esperança Olivério. She’s an orphan who has traveled thousands of miles to the city to be on Rio’s beach on New Year’s Eve, when it’s Brazilian tradition to wear white and ask Iemanja, the goddess of the sea, for a favor.
Oli is the only one who comes not to ask for something but to express gratitude. Iemanja is touched and becomes her ally.
While on the beach, Oli literally bumps into a rich woman, Rosa Maria, who then becomes the unwitting victim of pickpockets Falcão (Fagin) and Zé Esquiva (the Artful Dodger). They take Oli under their wing, bringing her back to their hut in the favela. Oli meets big-hearted Nancí, Falcão’s laundry maid, and has a disturbing run-in with Sykes, a corrupt cop, who is Nancí’s boyfriend.
The thieves try to wise Oli up to the ways of the world, telling her that it’s dog-eat-dog. But Oli, whose first name means “hope,” never loses her positivity and belief in goodness – even when she is accused of the robbery of Rosa Maria and brought in by Sykes to be tried by a judge.
Will Oli go to jail, or will her innocence shine through? Everyone who knows the story of Oliver Twist knows that he gets his happy ending – though in this Brazilian Twist, Oli proactively creates her own happy ending.
This version also allows Nancy to do what you always wished she would do: dump Sykes. (I love everything about Dickens’s tale except the infuriating storyline with Nancy, who is smart and sassy, yet devoted to the violent Sykes. It makes no sense: What does she see in him?)
As it turns out, 21st-century Rio has a lot more in common with 19th-century London than it originally seemed. As one character says, “People grow up poor in lots of places.” Throughout, samba-inflected songs immerse us in the sounds of Brazil, played live by a three-person band. The versatile actors, especially Felicia Curry as Oli, sing, dance, and even demonstrate capoeira, a Brazilian martial-arts/dance form.
My nine-year-old daughter really liked the play-within-a-play structure. Although you don’t really need to know Dickens’s original story to appreciate OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist, I’d recommend at least looking through the Cuesheet that the ushers hand out before the play. This fun performance guide for kids explores various aspects of the play, including the timely fact that all eyes will be on Rio later this year for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist shines a light on continuing child poverty in our cities today, but ends on a note of hope – all set to a samba beat and brightened with the flamboyant costumes of Carnival.
WHAT TO KNOW
- OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist runs through February 21, 2016 at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. Shows are Saturdays at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 5 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 and 4 p.m. A sensory-friendly performance is offered at 1:30 p.m. on February 14.
- The play is recommended for ages 8 and up. The show run time is 65 minutes with no intermission.
- Tickets are $20.
- Parking is available at the Kennedy Center garage for $23, but if you book online ahead of time it is $20. The nearest metro is Foggy Bottom and there is a free shuttle that can take you to the Center.
Photos by Teresa Wood.