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New Production of Oliver Is Edgy at Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 12, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Photo by Margot Schulman.

A decidedly refreshing Oliver debuted at Arena Stage last night signaling a break with traditional productions of Charles Dickens’ mid-19th century classic of the underbelly of England’s Victorian era.  Director Molly Smith’s interpretation transports the audience to the seedy streets of modern day London to prove when it comes to crime and passion, poverty and the exploitation of the unfortunate, one of Dickens’ familiar themes, not much has changed.  Choreographer Parker Esse and Costume Designer Wade Laboissoniere perfectly echo that insight using breakdancing, pop-locking and electro-dancing coupled with edgy, urban streetwear combined with period Victoriana.  Special praise for Kyle Coffman as the Artful Dodger who executes some ballet/moonwalk dancing in “Consider Yourself”.  Props by Marion Hampton Dube are modernized to reflect the era – a boombox is boosted, credit cards hoarded, cell phones take selfies and Oliver sports a backpack.  Can you picture Fagin grilling sausages on a BBQ grill?  You’d better.  He does. 

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Notwithstanding this edgy version, the story of the tiny orphan Oliver (Jake Heston Miller) hasn’t changed a whit.  It is still the tale of Oliver Twist, a street urchin first captured by Mr. Bumble (Paul Vogt) and his reluctant paramour, the Widow Corney (Rayanne Gonzalez), who then sel him off to Draconian funeral parlor owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt), only to be indoctrinated into a life as a pickpocket by the captivating Svengali, Fagin (Jeff McCarthy), and his workhouse boys with the sympathetic portrait of Nancy (Eleasha Gamble), the mohawk-sporting crook with a heart of gold, and her swaggering lover, Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter), the evilest villain in London town. 

(L-R) Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Twenty-one numbers neatly envelop the plot.  I particularly loved Story and Schmidt’s portrayal as two perfectly matched grim reapers with Story playing the foil to Schmidt’s dominatrix in a snappy Noel Coward-style rendition of “That’s Your Funeral”; Gamble’s soaring soul-filled version of “It’s a Fine Life” and “As Long As He Needs Me” (goosebumps guaranteed); Miller’s “Where is Love?” sung in an angelic, pitch perfect, boychoir treble; and McCarthy’s gravelly-voiced, comedic handling of “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation”.  Paul Sportelli leads the 13-piece orchestra so seamlessly you’d think it was recorded from the original. 

(L-R) Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Tom Story as Mr. Sowerberry in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center - Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Tom Story as Mr. Sowerberry in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center – Photo by Margot Schulman.

To add to the intensity, there are dozens of mood-altering light cues by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills that instantly transform the atmosphere from dark and gritty to warm and fuzzy to reflect the dramatic transitions in Oliver’s circumstances.  Much of the action is played out above the audience on Set Designer Todd Rosenthal’s crisscrossed steel bridge allowing for extra staging beyond the immediate theater-in-the-round.  And there are plenty of thrills as Oliver and his gang of juvenile delinquents evade the London bobbies. 

Though this is a hugely entertaining, high-adrenaline show, I would not recommend it for young children as there is a good deal of bump-and-grind, coupled with hard drug use by the urchins.

Through January 3, 2016 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org

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