Reimagining of ‘Oliver’ at Arena Stage neatly explores modern London

Reimagining of ‘Oliver’ at Arena Stage neatly explores modern London

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)

A magnificently original rendition of “Oliver” debuted at Arena Stage last night, signaling a break with traditional productions of Charles Dickens’ classic portraying the underbelly of England’s Victorian era.

Director Molly Smith’s interpretation transports the audience to the seedy streets of modern day London to prove that when it comes to crime and passion, poverty and the exploitation of the unfortunate — one of Dickens’ familiar themes — not much has changed.

Choreographer Parker Esse and costume designer Wade Laboissoniere perfectly echo that insight using break-dancing, hip hop and electronica-based dancing coupled with a combination of streetwear and period Victoriana. Special praise goes to Kyle Coffman as the Artful Dodger, who executes some ballet and moonwalking in “Consider Yourself.”

Props by Marion Hampton Dube are modernized to reflect the era — a boom box is boosted, credit cards hoarded, cell phones take selfies and Oliver sports a backpack. Can you picture Fagin grilling sausages on a grill? You’d better, because he does.

Despite the update, the story behind “Oliver” hasn’t changed a whit. It is still the tale of Oliver Twist (Jake Heston Miller), a street urchin first captured by Mr. Bumble (Paul Vogt) and his reluctant paramour, the Widow Corney (Rayanne Gonzalez), who then sell him off to Draconian funeral parlor owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt).

Oliver is indoctrinated into a life as a pickpocket by the captivating Svengali, Fagin (Jeff McCarthy) and his workhouse boys, including the sympathetic portrait of Nancy (Eleasha Gamble), the mohawk-sporting crook with a heart of gold, and her swaggering lover, Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter), the evilest villain London has ever known.

The plot is neatly enveloped by 21 songs. I particularly loved Story and Schmidt’s portrayal as two perfectly matched grim reapers in a snappy Noel Coward-style rendition of “That’s Your Funeral;” Gamble’s soaring soulfilled version of “It’s a Fine Life” and “As Long As He Needs Me;” Miller’s “Where is Love?” sung in an angelic, pitch perfect, choir treble; and McCarthy’s gravelly-voiced, comedic handling of “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation.” Paul Sportelli leads the 13-piece orchestra so seamlessly you’d think it was recorded from the original.

To add to the intensity, there are dozens of mood-altering light cues by lighting designer Colin K. Bills that instantly transform the atmosphere from dark and gritty to warm and fuzzy to reflect the dramatic transitions in Oliver’s circumstances.

Much of the action is played out above the audience on set designer Todd Rosenthal’s crisscrossed steel bridge, allowing for extra staging beyond the immediate theater-in-the-round. And there are plenty of thrills as Oliver and his gang of juvenile delinquents evade the London bobbies.

Though this is a hugely entertaining, high-adrenaline show, I would not recommend it for
young children as there is a good deal of suggestive dancing, coupled with drug use by the urchins.