By Punch Contributor Lindsey Clark
As I take my seat in the Fichandler Stage at Arena for Oliver!, I notice one lone prop on stage that indicates to me that this will not be your standard production of the classic Charles Dickens story: a boom box. Gleaming under a single spotlight, the presence of this item on an otherwise empty stage immediately plucks the well-known story of the poor, down-on-his-luck orphan boy from its usual setting in Victorian-era London and thrusts it into the modern-day city, putting a curious twist (no pun intended) on the traditional performance I’d been expecting.
Born in England in 1812, Dickens went to work in a factory when he was only 12 years old. The experience and the hardship impacted much of his later writings, with Oliver Twist being no exception – first introduced as a series in 1837, the story documents the harsh reality of life for the working class, and the huge disparity between the haves and the have nots. The musical adaptation by composer Lionel Bart premiered in London’s West End in 1960 before coming to Broadway in 1963, and it still continues to enjoy revivals and remounts like the one currently at Arena, 55 years after it first hit the stage.
Under the direction of Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, we are pulled into the under-belly of London along with Fagin and his gang of pick-pocketing lost boys, and from the show’s high-energy opening number, “Food, Glorious Food” the tone is set for what is to come. That the title character is played by an actor who is only ten years old makes it all the more impressive that Jake Heston Miller stands so firmly in Oliver’s worn-out shoes. His portrayal of the impressionable young boy desperate for a family of his own is both charming and heart-breaking – for as old as the story of Oliver Twist is, it still resonates as a reminder of those caught up in a broken system, often the most forgotten and overlooked among us. Miller delivers as a rough-and-tumble people pleaser, determined to stand his ground and earn approval at the same time, which serves him well until earning approval means breaking the law.
On the run from the undertaker he’s been apprenticed to and easily impressed by the free-living lifestyle of the Artful Dodger (a scene-stealing Kyle Coffman), Oliver soon finds himself in the company of Fagin (Jeff McCarthy) a foster-father figure who seems to have the best interest of his boys in mind, except that his own best interest keeps getting in the way. Among the crew he oversees is Nancy (Eleasha Gamble, who flexes some serious vocal muscle) who does her best to protect Oliver, despite the fact that it leaves her at the mercy of her heavy-handed boyfriend, Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter). When Oliver winds up in police custody and then miraculously in the compassionate care of Mr. Brownlow (Thomas Adrian Simpson), he finally has a chance to find the love he’s been looking for, although of course Fagin isn’t content to let him go so easily. Whether it’s the boy’s angelic face or the trinkets his tiny hands are capable of swiping that he’s hoping to hold on to is hard to say, but Oliver suddenly finds that there’s no shortage of grown-ups claiming him as their own. It’s everything he’s ever wanted – and perhaps a few things he didn’t.
The continued popularity of Dickens’ story of an outcast orphan some 178 years after its debut speaks to the power of its message. Arena’s modern take on the production is a remarkable testament to its place in the present, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the need that surrounds us every day. The cast, amplified by the literal surround-sound provided by the Fichandler’s in-the-round setting, lift their voices to the rafters and beyond, carrying Oliver to new audiences and into new hearts, where – hopefully – he’ll find a place that he can forever call home.
Oliver! runs at Arena Stage through January 3rd. Tickets start at $50 and are available online at www.arenastage.org, by phone at 202-488-3300, or at Arena’s box office, located at 1101 Sixth Street, SW. Post-show conversations with the cast and crew will follow the noon performances on December 9th and December 15th.
As the Punch Premiere Correspondent, Lindsey covers all things music and theater related. When not writing for Pamela’s Punch, Lindsey has a seriously sweet gig as Executive Assistant at the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (www.pcah.gov). Aside from writing and seeing as much live music as possible, you can usually find her on a running trail, in front of a painting, staring at her dog, Lincoln, or hanging out with her big sister and fellow Punch Correspondent Niki Clark. Follow her on twitter @lindseykayclark. Contact Lindsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.