“Contemporary’ may not be the first word when one thinks of classic 1968 Broadway musical Oliver!, but that’s exactly what Arena Stage has delivered in their update of the Dickensian classic. Arena and Director Molly Smith have given Oliver! a conceptual facelift with a syncopated rescoring, hip-hop influenced choreography and roof-raising soulful vocals that manage to maintain the integrity of the original with all of the traditional yet top-class chops of an enormous (and enormously talented) cast.
The new setting of 21st century London may be the biggest question mark for those wondering whether they should see this reinterpretation. While there were a few oddities and anachronisms (mainly dealing with pocket handkerchiefs), there are several reasons why this version remains effective.
First, as anyone who has walked the streets of Washington with their eyes open can tell you, abject poverty and heart-breaking class disparity surrounds us in our political discussions, our daily struggle, and in the people we meet (or step over) every day. Is it so unbelievable that a boy would get lost in the cracks of homelessness, insufficient charity and government programs, and the callousness of others?
The total and near-seamless production design of Oliver! contributes to making this update feel real. It shows that Molly Smith knows the Fichandler space like the back of her hand since she has directed set designer Todd Rosenthal to keep the modern street-imitating mainstage clear for 3 trap doors and nice textured lighting from Colin K. Bills. The steel of a giant 4-way catwalk high above the stage tells more of today’s downtown London than Dickens’ or other Broadway productions portrayal of The City. Bills takes advantage of Rosenthal’s design by hanging most of his lights vertically above the stage, texturing the floor like city streets. Smith’s direction does as well, sending significant amounts of action up to be squished against the ceiling, so high up seats are the best ones to buy for this particular production.
Wade Laboissoniere’s costumes mix periods, but charmingly so. The ratty frock coats and other throwback accoutrement feel as hip as they do Victorian and come off as charming homage. But what I like most about the costumes is that they tell a clear story, and changes in costumes sharpen these characters’ journeys (if a bit overtly). From the Artful Dodger’s jailhouse tattoos and blue hair highlights to giving villainous Bill Sikes the well-cut floral suits of a gangster instead of the unkempt threads of a house burglar, Laboissoniere’s costumes flash modern day style, using more familiar clues for more familiar tropes to bring Oliver! closer to today without ruining its narrative structure. Plus, he got the good fun to deploy a veritable smorgasbord of hipster trinkets and hair you would see on someone drinking a PBR at a Brooklyn watering hole.
Parker Esse’s choreography may be the most singular and memorable aspect of the production, and this cast’s performance feels like they all had tons of fun creating those dances. Mixing step (in “Food, Glorious Food” and “Oom-Pah-Pah”), hip-hop (in “Consider Yourself” and “It’s a Fine Life”) and traditional prancy Broadway styles, Esse’s movements work with Paul Sportelli’s bass-heavy and syncopated musical direction to freshen up this standby soundtrack. But both Sportelli and Esse avoid alienating older and more tradition-minded audience members by not going overboard here. Having a musical taste nourished on hip-hop, I would have loved to have seen a full DJ remix style Oliver! But I think they’ve made the smart, restrained choice here and will be rewarded with an expanded audience that a full transformation might have narrowed.
Sportelli’s music direction especially excels in his work with the actors. Eleasha Gamble, as the heroic if confused Nancy, particularly benefits by adding soul influences to the music. Her “As Long As He Needs Me” was the highlight of the second act, and her soaring belt made her an easy crowd favorite. Though it’s hard to compete with Jake Heston Miller’s Oliver, whose angelic voice and syrupy acting seem ready-made for the part. His “Where is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” held the audience on an emotional string, and kudos go to Molly Smith for knowing when quiet focus would make Oliver’s little light shine.
The acting throughout the cast has the right amount of ham for the material (as the saying goes “This ain’t Shakespeare”). Jeff McCarthy as Fagin has a particular shine, seeming in this production to be as much protagonist as the titular tike. McCarthy finds a great platform here to show Fagin’s dichotomy: a loving caretaker and sinister manipulator of children, a selfish miser and a generous defender of the weak, an abuser and a victim.
Minor characters make major contributions here. Paul Vogt and Rayanne Gonzales squeeze every drop of humor available out of Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney and show class by excelling at the difficult art of playing comedy when surrounded on all sides by an audience.
Mr. and Mrs. Sowerby (Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt) chew the scenery well in their one scene, which may have been the funniest of the entire night. And, even though WC Fields allegedly said to “never work with animals or children,” the quintet of child actors in Oliver! added more charm than distraction.
October 30 – January 3, 2015
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $99 – $119
Director Molly Smith has many balls to juggle here, and she does so deftly. She orchestrates all of the traditional elements of the musical, but weaves in contemporary tropes of homelessness, drug abuse and class friction. More importantly, her consistent vision of hope in gritty urban life made sure that this hodgepodge of eras felt like they all belonged in the same world, doing what all theater artists want to do: tell a good story.
Was there anything not to like? Not really. Anyone who is thinking about buying a ticket to a blockbuster musical like Oliver! generally knows what they are looking for: athletic dancing, familiar songs, funny comedic bits and a few tugs at the heart-strings. Arena Stage delivers all of these and a little bit more with its 21st century spruce-up of a 20th century musical based on a 19th century classic novel. Whether you’re looking for a traditional musical to bring your parents to or a more hip musical to bring your kids along, Oliver! is a great bet and is sure to be fun for everyone.
Oliver! by Lionel Bart . Directed by Molly Smith . Featuring Jake Heston Miller, Paul Vogt, Rayanne Gonzales, Kyle Schliefer, Tom Story, Dorea Schmidt, Lara Zinn, Kyle Coffman, Jeff McCarthy, Eleasha Gamble, Chaz Jackson, Jesse Palmer, Catherine Flye, Lauren Gemelli, Ian Lassiter, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Kyle Vaughan, Ian Anthony Coleman, Mohammed Badawi, Sebastian Gervase, Henry Niepoetter, and Ethan Van Slyke . Set Design: Todd Rosenthal . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills. Costume Design: Wade Labossoniere . Sound Design: Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli . Choreography: Parker Esse . Music Direction: Paul Sportelli . Stage Manager: Susan R. White . Assistant Stage Manager: Kristen Mary Harris . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Alan Katz.