Theatre Review: Oliver!

Even if you aren’t a Broadway know-every-word-by-heart nerd like me, you’ll be toe-tapping along to Arena Stage’s excellent production of Oliver!, whisper-singing “food, glorious food” and “boy for sale” under your breath along with the cast.

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The minimalist revival of the 1960 musical based on Charles Dickens’s first novel captures the atmosphere of drab Victorian England, interrupted by contemporary flashes. The discordance of a Starbucks coffee cup, American Express Card, female Mohawk, or Star Wars sleeping bag sear a reminder that tales of poverty and the exploitation of children aren’t relegated to history.

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The cast was strong, the singing high caliber. Particularly enchanting was young Jake Heston Miller in the title role of nine-year-old orphan Oliver. Often I brace myself for wooden recitations from child performers, but Miller nailed the waifish urchin. Instantly endearing, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His rendition of Where Is Love was plaintive and pitch perfect. The show’s powerhouse, however, was Eleasha Gamble. Her Nancy stole every scene she crossed through. Her towering pipes belted out As Long As He Needs Me and It’s A Fine Life with a gusto that left the rest of the cast in her shadow. Ian Lassiter was particularly miscast as villain Bill Sikes. His underwhelming My Name left the audience scratching their heads wondering why this vivid and powerful Nancy would allow such an inferior and unmenacing dude buy her dinner, much less boss her around. Lassiter was equally outsung by Jeff McCarthy, who depicted rapscallion Fagin with flawed charm. McCarty’s Reviewing the Situation had the audience laughing out loud.

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The show employed few props, relying on the characters to decorate the stage. Done theater-in-the-round, the choreography made the most of a small space: Fagin’s gang strolled the aisles, and cops chased them down across the rafters. A mesmerizing opening rhythmic synchronization of spinning boys and slamming plates during Food, Glorious Foodset the tone. The performance was an ensemble piece, its “set” the cast. Dancers flew across the stage nimbly, bodies spinning in coordinated precision like the cogs of a stolen pocket-watch. Another highlight was Consider Yourself, sung by the engaging Kyle Coffman as the Artful Dodger, breaking into an unexpected ensemble hip hop street-dance off at the end.

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The production was deftly directed. It was campy when campy was called for, and poignant in the heartfelt moments. The balance worked, allowing the audience to chuckle at the over-the-top That’s Your Funeral, and immediately thereafter blink back tears at the plaintive Where Is Love. The question I asked myself prior to the show was whether it was appropriate for my five-year-old boy. While the transfixing Oliver is the spitting image of my son, with his platinum shock of hair, the answer is wait until the kids are ten. Act One is more comic than dark. Where heartstrings are tugged, the message is that everyone’s just trying to get by the best they can in all their brokenness. But Act Two is more intense, running like an episode of Law & Order on speed and steroids. Betrayal, redemption, revelations, foul deeds, nefarious conniving, poignant reunions, murder, and justice. It’s all packed in, a tad muddled, the audience breathlessly following along, even story veterans like me wondering one thing: what will become of one boy, one boy named Oliver?

Ultimately, the Arena Stage revival of Oliver! manages to blend finesse with heart, rendering a performance more accessible than a slick hyper-shiny Broadway production, evoking fond reminiscences of high school shows but with much more polish. In the end, you want to adopt Oliver yourself. In fact, you’ll want to adopt the entire play.

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Oliver! is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater from Oct. 30, 2015 through Jan. 3, 2016 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.

*Images credit Margot Schulman for Arena Stage

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