From its opening number, Arena Stage’s innovative new production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is bursting with excitement and emotion. Director Molly Smith has stripped the classic musical based on Charles Dickens’s novel to its essence, bringing out its inherent rawness and power. Watching Oliver (Jake Heston Miller) and his fellow orphans angrily banging their dishes on the table as they chant their hymn to “Food, Glorious Food,” we’re reminded that this is a bleak world, full of hungry children and desperate adults.
At the same time, that world is full of wit and color. Many of Wade Laboissoniere’s costumes for this modern-dress production still carry hints of earlier periods; the ragbag nature of most of them allows him to show his creativity and ability to create a sense of timelessness. Todd Rosenthal’s sets and Colin K. Bills’ lighting have a stark industrial feel to them that contribute to this atmosphere, suggesting both Victorian steampunk and today’s urban landscape. Best of all, Smith’s highly talented cast brings to the show an energy, spirit, and warmth that are irresistible.
Jake Heston Miller makes an ideal Oliver, equally quick to show affection or temper, and with a beautiful, heartfelt singing voice. As Fagin and the Artful Dodger respectively, Jeff McCarthy and Kyle Coffman play their well-loved parts in fine style, flirting with the audience like seasoned vaudevillians and tossing off their songs and lines with aplomb. McCarthy’s “Reviewing the Situation” in the second act, and its reprise at the end of the show, are masterfully performed comic highlights.
As Nancy, Eleasha Gamble is a vocal powerhouse. At the crucial moment when Nancy is declaring her commitment to the mercurial and abusive Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter) and daring anyone to feel sorry for her, Gamble delivered the role’s signature solo, “As Long As He Needs Me,” with a defiance and power that shook the rafters.
But it’s not just the showstoppers that make this Oliver! so memorable; Smith and her cast, commendably, are just as invested in the little moments. Before this, I had always thought of the first-act number “It’s Your Funeral” as something of a throwaway moment. But as undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt, with an able assist from Paul Vogt’s Mr. Bumble, deliver it as a searing tango-flavored number that brings the house down. (Think of Gomez and Morticia Addams with the romance dialed down a bit and the creepiness dialed way up.) Schmidt in particular gives her role an edge and intensity that make the scene crackle.
There’s not enough room to go into detail about top-notch performances from Rayanne Gonzales, Kyle Schliefer, Lara Zinn, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Jesse Palmer, and many others. But each cast member, whatever the size of his or her part, puts in a wholehearted and praiseworthy effort.
Musical Director Paul Sportelli has added contemporary beats to several of the songs, which work better for some of them than others. For instance, the modernized dance break in the latter part of “Consider Yourself” adds some interest and keeps it from growing tedious, which can happen after too many repetitions of the song. But I was less sold on the updated version of Nancy’s “It’s a Fine Life,” which makes it less nuanced and a little too upbeat overall. I can understand the rationale behind modernizing songs for a modern-looking production, but the result is something of a subjective matter; those who know and love the traditional arrangements may find some of them a bit difficult to get used to.
Parker Esse’s choreography, simultaneously intricate and showy, is truly excellent, and his dancers—particularly Kyle Coffman as Dodger, who always seems on the verge of breaking into dance—perform it brilliantly.
Molly Smith and her cast and crew can be justly proud of what they’ve created—a production that fully captures the heart and energy of Dickens’s and Bart’s work, while infusing a fresh vitality and passion all its own. No matter how many times you’ve seen Oliver! in the past, you should not miss this version.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Oliver! plays through January 3, 2016 on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.
Jeff McCarthy on Playing Fagin in Arena Stage’s ‘Oliver!’ by Joel Markowitz.