MD Ridge Reviews "Oliver Twist"

VSC Oliver Twist

Bringing Dickens’ Oliver Twist to the stage of TCC’s Roper Theater as a musical
has been a major undertaking for the Virginia Stage Company, in collaboration
with the Governor’s School for the Arts and composer Jake Hull—but the risk pays
off handsomely. Patrick Mullins adapted the script (with some gender-bending)
and directed the large cast of 26; the result is a high-energy, captivating version of
the classic tale of a runaway workhouse orphan who falls in with Fagin’s band of
thieves and pickpockets but is rescued by a kindly stranger. After much injustice
and trickery, the poor orphan finally has prospects—and a family.
In the title role, GSA player David Hopkins doesn’t really have much to do, except
utter the iconic line, “Please, sir, I want some more”—and faint dead away from
hunger. That’s the problem with a “goodness” role—villains are so much more
interesting. His accent sets him apart—but they’re Brits, and by their accents ye
shall know them. Dialect coach Steve Earle has done a very good job indeed with
the Governor’s School ensemble, whose accents aren’t perfect or consistent, but
definitely serviceable.

The adult actors are splendid. Bruce Warren, as the bullying beadle Mr. Bumble,
and Ailish Riggs, as the raffish, scheming workhouse matron Mrs. Mann, just
about steal the show. Correy West is a marvelously flamboyant Fagin, full of threat
and menace clothed in jolly pleasantries. Debrah Moran radiates both warmth and
shrewdness as Mrs. Brownlow, who befriends the dazed orphan. Meredith Noel
plays the sympathetic Nancy, in with a bad crowd and in love with the villainous
Bill Sikes. John Forkner’s Sikes is a stalwart crack shot, but it’s never really clear
why Nancy’s afraid of him—until he kills her. J.R. Heckler is the mysterious Mr.
Monks, edging around the action with evil intent.

Two of the Governor’s School actors stand out: Mikael Gemeda-Breka is the
Artful Dodger, one of Dickens’ most memorable characters—he’s in Fagin’s gang
of young robbers, and takes young Oliver under his wing to teach him survival.
And full props to the agile, spring-loaded Dale Van Slyke as Noah; he zooms
around the stage, up and down the steps of the set’s various levels, making the
puppet dog Bullseye come to tail-wagging life. (Bullseye is the creation of “visual
storyteller” Nehprii Amenii.) Asia Bruce is a sweet Rose, Mrs. Brownlow’s ward,
and Sean Hynes is an earnest Charley, in Fagin’s gang.
The 14 members of the Governor’s School ensemble are used to good effect not
only as Fagin’s gaggle of thieves, but as narrators—different performers have short
bursts, sometimes singly, sometimes in small groupings. Timing is crucial and they
have it.

It would be more accurate to call this a play with music rather than a musical,
because composer Jake Hull is the principal performer, playing a grand piano
onstage with cellist Amos Housworth of The Last Bison band. Unfortunately, most
in the audience could not understand a word of Hull’s lyrics, whether because of
his swallowing of the microphone or a technical problem. (And it seemed worse by
comparison with the precise sung diction in the Stage Company’s September
production of I Sing the Rising Sea.) Nor does it help the chorus to be singing with
their backs to the audience. However, if one simply tunes out the incomprehensible
lyrics, the music does underscore different moods and moves the action along

The set works very well—scaffolding, ladders and ramps from one level to another
cover the back wall, leaving room for actions at more than center stage. During the
violent actions (Oliver being beaten up, the murder of Nancy, Sikes hanging
himself), Amenii has one of the ensemble punching away at a heavy bag at stage
right, while on an upper level, the actual violence is shown backlighted into larger-than-life shadows behind a drawn curtain. (Kudos to lighting designer Jared Sayeg.)When Oliver faints from hunger or a beating, Amenii has the ensemble appear as if in his dream, surrounding him with fantasy flowers and trees.

I’m still not sure what all the cogs and wheels are about—the symbolism seems belabored—but they look good and give the ensemble something to do besides run around. Jenni Schaefer’s costumes are inventive and practical—not always easy to bring off in a period piece.

All in all, it’s an interesting, lively and vibrant adaptation of a well-loved classic.

From the Other Side of the Footlights, I’m M.D. Ridge.