Social inequality is at the core of Virginia Stage Company's new take on "Oliver Twist"
Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot
October 28, 2016
IT’S THE KIND of story a journalist today would love to tell – the gripping saga of an innocent orphan caught in a merciless cycle of poverty that leads to criminal associations and unfair punishments.
That would be “Oliver Twist.”
Unlike the case with so much hard news, Charles Dickens’ novel has a happy and just ending.
Hearing the plot, involving pickpockets and greedy officials, few would imagine a musical of it. Yet a lively, tuneful “Oliver!” won three Tonys in 1964.
Several stage versions have popped up since then. The latest, a 90-minute show produced by the Virginia Stage Company in partnership with the Governor’s School for the Arts, opens today at the Roper Performing Arts Center in downtown Norfolk.
Patrick Mullins, associate producer for Virginia Stage, got the idea in December to adapt it.
“I love working on big, universal stories,” he said in a recent interview. The epic tale is set in 1830s industrial-age England. “We’re far enough away from it that we can see it for its core issues and not for its politics of the moment.”
At its core: social inequity.
Dickens, who also wrote “A Christmas Carol,” was reacting to a new law affecting the poor. Instead of being given handouts, needy Brits were sent to workhouses where they labored hard in a prisonlike environment to earn their meager daily gruel. The idea was to make it as unpleasant as possible so only the truly indigent would apply.
In Dickens’ book, “we get this clear metaphor of the machine of society that serves some people and eats others.”
Mullins sees the story as relevant to current American culture, with its deep divide between rich and poor. “We forget that we have the life we have because there are other people lower on the food chain from us, and some higher than us. Inadvertently, by maintaining our lifestyle, we’re making someone else’s life harder.”
Another reason Mullins wanted to create a new “Oliver Twist” was the opportunity to work again with Norfolk composer-arranger-lyricist Jake Hull, who is influenced by world music – especially Indian, from Ravi Shankar to Bollywood.
Mullins and Hull have collaborated since 2013 on original productions at Town Point Park, part of Festevents’ Mid-Summer Fantasy Festivals.
“There’s a quality in Jake’s work of yearning, of hope,” Mullins said, “which is definitely what you need for an orphan who’s trying to find a place that feels like home.”
What Hull came up with for “Oliver” is in a “pop, world-music style,” Mullins said. “It’s immediately likable and not off-putting. Even though it’s accessible, it’s still complex and rich.”
Mullins also got excited about bringing in Nehprii Amenii, a Brooklyn, N.Y., artist-thespian-writer who is the show’s “visual designer.”
At a recent rehearsal, Amenii sat in the theater watching the actors onstage, 18 teenage “orphans” played by Governor’s School students and seven adult professionals.
Her job is to add spectacle and magic to help illuminate the story. She designed the set, props and puppetry. She also created shadow play to suggest rather than show the violence that occurs, such as when gang lord Bill Sikes beats up his girlfriend.
While designing, she thought about how Oliver faints in the story. “To be an orphan, and have a life like that, in his quiet moments, there must be something he’s yearning for,” she said.
“So, every time Oliver faints, we enter into his dream world.”
One of his fainting scenes was being rehearsed as she spoke: Oliver asks for more gruel, gets yelled at by mean grownups, then faints. He wakes to a girl holding a huge dandelion over him. Then the teen actors carry in trays of flowers and huge clouds on sticks. “That’s ‘object puppetry,’ ” Amenii said – as opposed to hand puppets or puppets on strings.
Backstage, they were still building a child’s playhouse that will be pulled out, along with a string-puppet dog, to complete the picture of Oliver’s fantasy of home.
“My job was not to design a scene,” she said. “It was to expose the machine.”
The machine of society.
At one point in the show, orphans flood onto the stage bearing gears. “And they’re building a machine. They attach all these gears and the machine gets activated.”
Mullins has been teaching a course this fall at the Governor’s School to prepare the teen actors. He looked at ease directing them, though it took more effort than with the pros.
“What happens to puppets if they stop moving?” he asked the cloud-toting teens, then paused. “It’s dy-ing!” he said, comically. “When you’re holding something, you should never look like you’re on strike. Your whole body’s got to be into it.” He jumped on stage to illustrate what he meant.
Behind them was Amenii’s set, which looks like scaffolding and allows for three levels of playing area above the stage, with a giant gear at center.
At stage level, below the gear, composer Hull sat before a grand piano.
During the dream scene after Oliver faints, he sang plaintively:
“I’m sure this is the place where it begins
“And I can feel it, I can feel it, I can feel it.”
The previous day, Hull talked about his research. He spent a week last summer in London, where he studied the popular music of 1830s England in a music library. Soon after, he traveled to Kenya to help produce an album featuring Kenyan orphans – a serendipitous orphan encounter.
Hull composes for film, too. He sees his work on “Oliver Twist” as “like a live cinematic score.” Hull performs almost all the vocals, as a kind of singing narrator.
“It’s like in these Bollywood movies. You get a character that goes into their mind, and sings, and the song exists as almost internal dialogue.” Likewise, his songs “shine a light on a character’s situation and their desires.”
All the “Oliver” songs use piano, accompanied at times by cello and percussion.
“Hold On” is a traditional pop ballad and the show’s anthem. “The Show” is his “anthem to the poor,” which has a naughty vaudeville approach.
“Forward Back” contains important lyrics Hull unearthed in his research, words used to protest social inequality in 19th century England.
“Those behind cry forward
“And those before cry back.”
It’s a song that “sets up the struggles of systemic violence, abuse and poverty,” Hull said. “There are those behind crying for progress and movement. And there are those in a position of power or privilege. ‘You know what? No, get back.’ ”
Dickens made his point with an orphan who turned out to be from an upper-class family. Mullins pondered what sort of a man he became.
“Did he end up a businessman? Or, because he experienced all this stuff, does he use his stature to make the world a better place? I always wonder.”
Reach Teresa Annas at teresa. email@example.com.