Despite being one of the area’s go-to talents for mature-themed productions—netting her four Helen Hayes nominations in the process—Felicia Curry has always had a soft spot in her heart for children’s theater. That’s why for every Les Miserables or Color Purple role she takes on, she makes sure to add a Willy Wonka or Barbie: Live in Fairytopia to her resume.
“I absolutely adore children’s theater and helping to bring stories to life for young people,” Curry says. “It’s important that children learn to appreciate theater and seeing their faces light up and seeing them get interested in stories is one of the best parts of what I do.”
Her latest role finds her playing Oli in OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist in the Kennedy Center Family Theater’s production inspired by Charles Dickens’ literary classic, Oliver Twist.
The show, directed by Juliette Carillo, with book and lyrics by Karen Zacarías and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, does a role reversal with the titular character, turning Oli into a girl.
“I was drawn to this because of the girl point of view, plus I love this idea of the Brazilian twist,” Curry says. “We are introducing the story to children but telling it in a different way. That’s what got me excited.”
The story follows young Oli, who finds leaving the Brazilian desert for the poor favela neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro isn’t easy. Her mother has left to find work, food is scarce, and now she’s been sent to an orphanage. So when the city makes its annual New Year’s Eve pilgrimage to the beach, in hopes that the goddess of the sea will grant them a wish, Oli masquerades as a boy to join the adventure and turn her luck around.
“Here’s this young kid, resilient through all of these things being thrown at him, and I think that’s universal. That’s what interested me in Karen and Debbie’s telling of it,” Curry says. “Here’s this young kid, boy or girl, it doesn’t matter, and it could be in any situation. There are kids specifically running around Brazil today, just like Oli, living in the types of conditions we see Oliver in in London.”
Ironically, Curry played the role of Nancy in Adventure Theatre’s production of Oliver this past summer, so she has been immersed in Dickens’ world for a while. Still, aside from knowing part of “a song or two” and being familiar with the iconic line, “please sir, can I have another,” before coming aboard the production she knew very little about the story of Oliver Twist.
“I never read the book and I don’t remember being introduced to it as a kid, but I was somewhat familiar with the story,” she says. “Once I started in the show, I did research and saw the movie and I realized how great it was and what a strong message it has.”
OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist
January 30 – February 21
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
So, once Zacarías and Wicks La Puma approached her with their idea—even though she was already committed to another Oliver project—she jumped at the chance to workshop it with them.
There are slight changes to the story, but for the most part, Curry says it rings true to the spirit of Oliver Twist.
“It’s the girl’s perspective, but not much different. It allows for children to see this story from their point of view,” she says. “Female characters don’t get to have their stories told very often and this is an opportunity for young girls in the audience to see themselves through this character.”
Not that boys should stay away. Curry believes OLIVÉRio will appeal to the opposite sex just as much.
“She’s clearly female, but what I like about the character that they created is that it’s a child anyone can relate to,” she says. “She Brazilian and I think most boys can attach themselves to her. She’s athletic, she likes to have fun, she makes references to soccer (football), she does Capoeira (a Brazilian martial arts) and I believe boys will relate to her much more than they expect to.”
Then of course, being set in Brazil as opposed to London makes for some changes, although there is still an homage to “please sir can I have another” in the play.
“Most people have probably never heard of Yemanja (the Goddess of the Sea) but she is very important in Brazil,” Curry says. “We give a lot of interesting information about Brazil, and there’s several words in Portuguese—hopefully words people can take with them—and we talk a lot about architecture and what housing looks like in that part of the world. Our set it stunning and beautiful with lots of color.”
There’s also a live band playing all Brazilian music, which accentuates the feeling of being in the country around Carnival.
“Our music director (Richard Miller) is a professor of Brazilian music and he’s been giving us lots of information about the country and how the music is played,” Curry says. “It’s really been incredible and there’s not even enough time to learn as much as I would want to.
With the show set to run Jan. 30 to Feb. 21, Curry is looking forward to seeing the reactions of the children and talking with them after.
“I’m excited about it and this idea of really being accessible to young people,” she says. “Oliver Twist is not a children’s book or a children’s story the way it is written. It’s not kid-friendly, and one of the things I truly like about this story is that you get the flavor and essence of Oliver Twist but kids will walk away understanding this story in a way I don’t think they would from the Oliver musical.”
The cast also features Rayanna Gonzales as Iemanja, James Konicek as Silas Sykes, Donna Migliaccio as Rosa Maria, Sasha Olinick as Falcão, Erika Rose as Nanci, and Arturo Soria as Zé Esquiva.