The solid performances in Arena Stage’s take on ‘Oliver’ make it deserving of being a hit.
It can’t be easy finding a nine-year-old actor who can carry off the title role in “Oliver”, but Arena Stage’s Molly Smith has found a perfect Oliver Twist in fourth grader Jake Heston Miller, a young man with stage presence, acting ability and a voice that is never strained and never falters.
Child actors can often be annoying and cloying, but Miller is an appealing consummate pro. “Oliver,” now in its Christmas season run at Arena, will be, like the previous musicals there, an entertaining, necessary money-maker attracting large audiences to the theater, many of whom aren’t often there during the regular season.
And, “Oliver” deserves to be a hit. The performances are solid and the voices compliment Lionel Bart’s memorable music and lyrics – he also wrote the book adaptation from Charles Dickens’ grim “Oliver Twist.” Under Smith’s direction, this “Oliver” has muted some of the darkness and that at times works against it.
Dickens’ tale is the familiar story of Oliver Twist, a boy born in and condemned to a life of privation in a dank London workhouse. Oliver is a frightened urchin, but he is feisty and he is hungry and has the audacity to politely ask if he could “please” have more food. He is punished and put on the market in the plaintive “Boy for Sale” song sung in a big voice by Paul Vogt, the tragic/comic Mr. Bumble.
Oliver is sold to an undertaker and is forced to sleep among the coffins and fed a few table scraps fit only for a dog. Not succumbing willingly to the child slavery he faces or seeing a way out, Oliver laments his fate in the haunting beautiful, “Where is Love?”
He fights back and escapes, trying to survive on the streets where he meets the Artful Dodger (Kyle Coffman). Coffman is a theatrical force. He can sing and dance and perform and is a standout in this production of actors with strong voices and engaging performances. Dodger takes the inexperienced boy back to meet Fagin, the criminal leader of a band of young pickpockets where he will have a place to sleep, and there will be food. Or where, as the Artful Dodger and chorus of the young boys sing in the rousing welcome, “Consider Yourself” one of us.
Fagin in the Dickens classic is sinister, but in the hit Broadway musical he is a more benign. He informs Oliver he will be required to earn his keep by picking pockets, in Fagin’s (Jeff McCarthy) tutorial in the energetic song “Pick a Pocket or Two,” dancing around with the boys and demonstrating how it is done. McCarthy easily handles the duality of being a greedy exploiter of the young boys, who at the same time isn’t such a bad guy.
Fagin sends Oliver out with Dodger the next day to learn the trade and in a confusion of a pick pocket that fails, Oliver is arrested. He is released into the custody of Mr. Brownlow (Thomas Adrian Simpson), a rich man whose daughter disappeared. Fagin, and especially the sinister Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter), are fearful that Oliver will squeal as to the whereabouts of Fagin’s lair. The want him back and Sykes forces his girlfriend, Nancy (Eleasha Gamble) to get him.
He is abusive of Nancy, but she loves Sykes as she sings her painful resignation, “As Long as He Needs Me,” that’s where she will be. Gamble so dominates the sad lament that it provokes tears. Nancy is a thief and more. She has grown fond of the boy, but brings him back because that’s what Sykes has demanded. She defies Sykes when he prepares to beat Oliver to teach him a harsh lesson. Nancy realizes she has made a mistake and arranges to meet Mr. Brownlow on London Bridge. Sykes follows her and then murders her in a sanitary stabbing murder on a metal framework of the bridge above the Arena stage where it loses its terrible ferocity. Dickens’ murder of Nancy was a bloody bludgeoning that reportedly haunted the author the rest of his life. It feels as remote as occurring off stage and is less shocking and more acceptable to a musical audience.
Under Smith’s direction this “Oliver” mixes the Victorian period with a more contemporary time and has even introduced into the action, sight gags of cell phones and selfies. The first meeting of Fagin, for example, is as he is preparing his morning coffee – with a French Press. Smith gets laughs, but it further dilutes the pathos of Oliver’s story.
The irony is that “Oliver” still opens at the dining table of a Victorian workhouse, not exactly a contemporary location. Todd Rosenthal’s set design is an empty stage with props moved on and off as needed. The minimalism actually benefited this production in that the focus is concentrated where it belongs — on the music and the performances.
The show’s opening number is a rousing dance choreographed by Parker Esse of the acrobatic antics of the boys at a metal table, banging mental plates and even tossing them about while singing their dream of “Food, Glorious Food.” It is a great opening.
Adding to the confusing time frame is Wade Laboissoniere’s costumes that were more evocative of the Victorian era.
“Oliver” is a demanding musical, especially for a young boy, but it is Oliver’s story, and the talented Miller who adeptly projects sweetness and endurance, confusion and fear, can more than hold his own in a cast of talented professionals.
“Oliver continues through January 3 at Arena Stage the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street, SW. Tickets are$50-$99 and available at 202-488-3300 or online here.