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On first impression, the pre-show glimpses of the set for Adventure Theatre’s Oliver! reveal a design that seems oddly ominous for a show that claims to be for audiences of all ages. The imposing, industrial set sits in a grim shadow. The back scrim projects an image of swirling fog. The lights rise and the musical numbers begin, but it is hard to shake the sense that something truly horrible is about to happen. Enter the chorus of children.
The dark atmosphere is not unearned by this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ bleak portrait of Victorian London workhouses, Oliver Twist. Our musical follows poor, sweet Oliver Twist (Franco Cabanas) from a workhouse to indentured servitude to a delightful band of pickpockets. Along the way, he makes eclectic underworld friends including the paterfamilias of the pickpockets (Rick Hammerly), the kind lover of a frightening gangster (Felicia Curry), and the ever-popular Artful Dodger (Jake Foster).
While the show purports to be steampunk, it’s not terribly (apart from a few costumes; most notably on Curry). But the look of the show is altogether darkly eccentric and feels fully realized, thanks to props designer Andrea “Dre” Moore, who fills the pickpockets’ den with handkerchiefs, trinkets, and doodads. Director Joseph Ritsch, too, takes notes from the lightning-quick stage exits of French farce to keep the cast rocketing on and off Douglas Clarke’s set.
Speaking of the cast: Ritsch artfully manages the ensemble so that even the youngest members are a blast to watch. The group as a whole is pretty strong, but the standout performances come from Hammerly and Curry. As Fagin, the father figure to the young pickpockets, Hammerly nicely balances sweet and sour. The “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” sequence would not win Fagin any parenting awards, but Hammerly commands the stage completely. Curry, a District favorite, delivers a crowd-pleaser with her rendition of Nancy’s “As Long as He Needs Me.” Audience members could be heard speculating about when she would be performing at the Tonys.
As Adventure Theatre’s first two-act production ever, Oliver! has its fair share of missteps for all its successes. The Cockney accents are a serious challenge for most of the actors. Hearing young actors say “Fagin” in the accent, without enunciation, occasionally produces a certain slur. Props are occasionally dropped. But it seems the theater has established a nice precedent for future two-act musicals away from its home base in Glen Echo Park.
Eyebrows will more likely raise at Adventure’s advisory that this performance is for all ages. Of course, parents should use their own discretion when bringing their kids to the theater, but Oliver! is truly dark and disturbing at moments. After one character is bludgeoned to death onstage, a young girl at Saturday night’s performance exclaimed, “That’s not nice, mama! Why did he do that?” The show is fun, but if you plan to bring the kiddos, prepare to explain to them on the way home why the bad man wants to hurt Oliver.
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $35–$45. adventuretheatre-mtc.org. (301) 634-2270.