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There’s a certain Charles Dickens story that has a habit of turning up on stages all over the Western world this time of year, and it isn’t Oliver Twist. Adaptations of A Christmas Carol are free-range and artisanal; we’ve had 170 years of them, with no single version dominant. That’s not the case with Oliver!, the unaccountably cheerful 1960 musical that Lionel Bart wrung out of Twist, replacing the protagonist’s family name with an exclamation point. As in: Child slavery! Starvation! Jeb! But also: Songs! So less specific, but louder.
Bart’s musical is surely more familiar to contemporary audiences than Dickens’ serialized novel, if only for the way its numbers have been endlessly parodied and/or co-opted for ad campaigns. I know I encountered the 1987 TV jingle “Cheese, Glorious Cheese” years before I discovered it was a riff on Bart’s show-opener, “Food, Glorious Food.”
But “cheese” represents “food” to roughly the same extent that Oliver! covers Oliver Twist. Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith’s impulse to restore the grit Bart scrubbed away is admirable—especially since we’re talking about Arena’s holiday-season books-balancer rather than one of its experiments, like this summer’s genuinely surprising and original Dear Evan Hansen, which was deservedly a major hit. But Dickens’ social critique and Bart’s “Oom-Pah-Pah” (a song title, lest you forget) can’t be easily reconciled.
Smith tries. She updates the Victorian setting to the present day, only it feels more like “2015 London” as foreseen by the makers of dystopian 1980s sci-fi movies, right down to the crisscrossing catwalks suspended from the ceiling and the midnight-blue lighting palette. The cops wear contemporary uniforms, but costume designer Wade Laboissonniere puts everyone else in unholy Rococo combinations of plaid pants and stocking caps and leather vests. The fingerless gloves presumably make it easier to handle the iPhones distributed among the cast, who use them to snap pictures of each other to no clear purpose—the truest-to-life thing that happens, actually. (There are surreptitious drug deals, too.)
This all feels like a desperate layering-on. The same goes for the music: Several of the familiar numbers are tricked out with hip-hop-derived rhythmic additives that only serve to remind you of how much less energetic this is than Hamilton, even if that one doesn’t have a sprig of punctuation in the title.
None of the show or the production’s faults can be assigned to the players, who range from not-bad to terrific. Jake Heston Miller, the towheaded fourth grader who plays Oliver, needs a little help navigating the in-the-round Fichandler Stage with so many bodies in the cast, but he’s a fine singer. As that master pickpocket the Artful Dodger, Kyle Coffman is the best exponent of Parker Esse’s athletic choreography, getting a particularly vigorous showcase in the middle of “Consider Yourself.” Jeff McCarthy’s Fagin, ringleader of this gang of innocent criminals, is exuberant and commanding. And as Nancy, the goldhearted hooker who protects Oliver from her violent (and here, Beretta-packing) boyfriend, Eleasha Gamble has empathy to burn. She sings the Dickensian shit out of the show’s best number, the slow-burner “As Long as He Needs Me.”
What a waste of resources.
I’m aware of at least three different A Christmas Carols opening locally; I haven’t seen any of them yet and I recommend them all. No one is talented enough to screw that story up.
1101 6th St. SW. $64–$99. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.