If you're concerned that you've seen Oliver! too many times to sit through another one, fear not. Arena Stage's lively new production of Lionel Bart's musical, based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, is like nothing you've seen before. Director Molly Smith connects Dickens' world with our own, underscoring homelessness, hunger, and want in a place that could be Dickensian London, contemporary London, or by implication, an American city. The result is an Oliver! that is fresh and surprisingly relevant.
Oliver! starts off at top speed, beginning in a poorhouse where the orphan Oliver and his fellow workhouse boys are preparing to eat their usual meal of gruel. After finishing and asking for more food, Oliver is punished by the orphanage's wicked caretaker, Mr. Bumble, and his wife, Widow Corney. They sell Oliver as an apprentice to a creepy mortician, Mr. Sowerberry, and his wife. Oliver runs away and meets the Artful Dodger, who in turn introduces him to a colorful underworld of crooks and pickpockets, including the aging thief, Fagin; the murderous robber, Bill Sykes; Nancy, who adores Bill; and Fagin's gang members, who live by the creed: you've got to "Pick a Pocket or Two."
Later a kindly gentleman named Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver in when he sees the child being falsely accused of stealing his handkerchief. But when he sends Oliver to a shop to return some books, Nancy and Bill abduct him. An old woman gives Mr. Bumble a locket with a photograph in it, which Bumble takes to Mr. Brownlow, hoping for a reward. Brownlow recognizes the photo as his daughter's and suspects that Oliver may be her son. In a fit of remorse, Nancy goes to Mr. Brownlow and promises to deliver Oliver to him that night on London Bridge, which she does, but at a cost.
In a show so full of plot twists and musical numbers, it's essential to keep the pace moving swiftly, and Smith does just that, breaking the relentless momentum of the musical only for a few slower songs, such as Oliver's plaintive "Where Is Love?" There is plenty of humor in Oliver! and Smith emphasizes every ounce of it.
Jake Heston Miller is delightful as Oliver, with a clear, high tenor and a beguiling sweetness of personality. Rayanne Gonzales is brilliant as the Widow Corney, her stunning voice and her talent as a comedian making "I Shall Scream" one of the high points of the musical. Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt are hilarious as Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, roles which they camp up in a way that suggests a ghoulish vampire couple.
The Artful Dodger is played by an extraordinary dancer, Kyle Coffman, whose beautifully choreographed accompaniment to "Consider Yourself" is a tribute to today's finest hip-hop dancers, including a nod to Michael Jackson. Nancy is portrayed by the powerful Eleasha Gamble, who does a funky R&B rendition of "It's a Fine Life" and a very moving "As Long As He Needs Me." Jeff McCarthy is very funny as Fagin, particularly in "Reviewing the Situation."
Todd Rosenthal's set for this production consists of an empty stage surrounded by metal fences. The addition of a few set pieces, including a clothesline for Fagin's lair and a bed for Mr. Brownlow's home, offers a suggestion of where the action takes place. High above the stage, two iron walkways cross, forming an area that doubles as downtown London and London Bridge. Costume designer Wade Laboissoniere contrasts contemporary clothes, like cargo pants for the workhouse boys,with elegant, 19th-century costumes for Brownlow, his housekeeper, and various people on the London street.
This Oliver! has a cast of just 25, but choreographer Parker Esse makes it seem like twice as many, having the workhouse boys leaping, jumping, and filling the air above the circular Fichandler stage in a very dynamic number. There are several fights in Oliver! that are all made to look astonishingly real by fight choreographer David Leong. Paul Sportelli's music direction is crisp and robust.
With its spectacular dancing, singing, and acting, this innovative Oliver! easily achieves Smith's goal, seamlessly blending the present with the past. It is sure to leave you wanting more.