Creative Cauldron presents Oliver Twist, an original adaptation based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel. Directors Laura Connors Hull and Ellen Selby and tailored this production for the performers of Learning Theater Studio, a program for children interested in the performing arts. This program helps build their stage presence by teaching a number of helpful tools and techniques, as well as teaming them alongside professional actors who workshop with them to create a final production. With music by Matt Conner and Lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith, Oliver Twist is a great pick for the Learning Theater Studio, and a worthy choice for an evening of family fun.
Scenic Designer Margie Jervis has little to work with in terms of space– the Creative Cauldron is an intimate black box theatre, and legroom is tight. The stage is given some simple elevated platforms for the ensemble to use in many creative ways, while the eye is drawn to a beautifully-painted backdrop–a silhouetted cityscape of Victorian London. Detailed and intricate, it is the perfect way to create an awe-inspiring set without taking up a lot of room. Jervis also designed the costumes for this productions, an exhaustive task that involved painting a couple dozen white laborer shirts to look dirty and ragged, a stark contrast to the crisp suits and dresses of the upper class.
Lighting Designer John Sami enhances the meager atmosphere of an impoverished London with spotlight work, soft, sad blue tints, and flashes of angry reds during the song “Scraps,” where young orphans work among terrible conditions in a London workhouse.
It is in this workhouse where we meet Oliver, a role shared by James Durham and Owen Thiebert. An offended Mr. Bumble (Gus Knapp) sells Oliver to funeral home owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Will Mark Stevenson and Judy Butler) after the starved boy shows the audacity to ask for more food. Stevenson and Butler are great as Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, a greedy couple with grating voices and pinched, puckered faces. They antagonize Oliver with the bullying song “Boo Hoo,” and throws him into the cellar to sleep amongst the coffins. Terrified but emboldened, Oliver runs away into the city of London, where he unwittingly falls in with the city’s criminal element, meeting a host of complex characters who pull him into a dangerous adventure.
As the young actors are learning and building their acting skills, the performances are not expected to be perfect. However, there were no big instances (forgotten lines, long hesitation, etc.) at my performance, which I find a testament to the encouraging direction and supportive teamwork of this program. Young talent is evident on this stage; Talia Cutler is upbeat as the mischievous Artful Dodger, and Libby Brooke and Constance Meade steal many scenes with their humorous roles of Pauper Woman and Old Sally. Hazel Feldstein comes to Oliver’s aid as Nancy, and riles up the bleak tone with the number “Cheers.” The professional adult actors work well with the children; Will Mark Stevenson dials down the usual role of Fagin, darker and more sinister than the Fagin that the world is used to, Stevenson snivels around the stage with a maniacal sneer and hunched posture. Jim Lynch shows incredible power and intimidation as Bill Sykes, and Gus Knapp brings some much-needed comfort into the show with the kind, sincere character of Mr. Brownlow.
Not to be confused with the popular Broadway musical Oliver!, Creative Cauldron’s Learning Theatre production of Oliver Twist is much more condensed and dramatic. Where Oliver! is more playful, Oliver Twist faces the seriousness of Dickens’ original novel head-on, and does not seek to sugar-coat its subject matter. While this means the show can be heavy and emotional, I would encourage adults to expose their children to it; theatre is an excellent way to inspire some much needed (if difficult) conversations about our world. This is a great opportunity to help widen young knowledge and world views in a safe and entertaining atmosphere.
Running Time: 75 minutes, without an intermission.
Creative Cauldron’s Learning Theatre production of Oliver Twist plays through November 20, 2016 at Creative Cauldron– 410 South Maple Avenue, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (571) 239-5288, or purchase them online.