Margot Schulman/Arena Stage

Charles Dickens published the serial “Oliver Twist” from 1837-39, inspired by his own experiences as a young boy living on the impoverished streets of London. Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation, “Oliver!” became an instant classic in 1960, and has been retold by theater company after theater company since.

Now set in modern London, “Oliver!” has taken yet another twist! The show is premiering through January 3 at the Arena Stage, led by Artistic Director Molly Smith. Smith included modern touches such as the use of cell phones and mainstream dances to make sure the audience understood the new period. Through dialogue and dialect, Smith’s “Oliver!” gives a nod to the story’s Victorian roots, but Paul Sportelli’s music kept the setting in the intended era.

Growing-up in an orphanage workhouse and sold to an undertaker after asking for more food — Oliver Twist (Jake Heston Miller) escapes and is accepted into a group of young pickpockets headed by Mr. Fagin (Jeff McCarthy). Falsely accused of theft, he meets a seemingly-kind gentleman who takes him in: Fagin’s violent old pupil, Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter). In the middle is Nancy (Eleasha Gamble), Sykes’ girl, whom Oliver comes to trust. She has to decide between her loyalty to Sykes and doing what’s best for Oliver.

Margot Schulman/Arena Stage

I really enjoyed the acting, singing, and dancing during “Consider Yourself,” featuring Oliver and The Artful Dodger (Kyle Schliefer). To be so young, Jake Heston Miller not only memorized his role very well, but he acted like he was born to be the star of the show.

I also had a lot of good laughs during “I Shall Scream”. There was humor, romance and singing. Mr. Bumble (Paul Vogt) and Widow Corney (Raynne Gonzales) complimented each other very well.

Margot Schulman/Arena Stage

The music was actually the best part of the performance. All the singers were great, but the powerhouse of the show was Nancy. She displayed a character with depth and dimension; a gang member, a lover and a victim. During the question and answer session after the show, a patron commented that she had never seen Nancy portrayed as such a “hard” female

“Well we wanted to give Nancy more edge, because she is a female on the streets,” explained a cast member. “Although she is loving, if she were to show these emotions they would be detrimental to her survival. This is what women growing up in gangs and on the streets are taught as a method of survival.”

Margot Schulman/Arena Stage

Oliver Twist awoke many people to the hardships of youth and poverty-stricken adults on the street. This modern production at Arena Stage brought home the reality of an ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor.

Will we continue to walk over the homeless individual with his cup out? Will we continue to scorn the kid who asks for more food? Maybe we should take the time to recognize the courage that it takes to stand out there and ask for help. And to realize that, although in a different financial state, we have all played the victim or the lover. Take the time to hear these stories by going to check out the awesome music of Oliver before January 3, 2016!

More information is available at www.arenastage.org.

Illustration by Bill C. Ray

Illustration by Bill C. Ray