With beloved numbers like “Consider Yourself,” “Food, Glorious Food” and “Where Is Love?” Oliver! is traditionally a feel-good musical, particularly with its irresistible cast of rascally boys who sing and dance.
Yet, it’s hard to ignore that the show trades in the unrelenting poverty of urban London and the more hidden, perhaps insidious, anti-Semitism of its original author, Charles Dickens. Dickens’ serialized Oliver Twist, published as a full book in 1838, tells a dark tale of the seamy underside of 19th-century London, where discord, decay and discarded children eke out a dreary life. Not really musical material, but in 1960, Jewish composer-lyricist Lionel Bart took a stab at it for London’s West End. It subsequently ran on Broadway. The 1968 film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Few realize, though, that latent anti-Semitism lies at the root of this, most blatantly in the Dickens’ novel on which it was based. Some stage versions of this popular musical wallow in the theatrical contrasts of sunny boyish voices and finicky rather than fearsome antagonists. The melodramatic plot pits a precocious boy against scheming and avaricious adults, drawing Dickensian pathos from viewers.
Arena Stage’s reconsideration of this musical melodrama, with the theater’s artistic director Molly Smith at its helm, emphasizes the darker undertones of the Dickens tale. Smith also updates it to a 21st-century setting that includes scenes played in the London Underground, on grimy city sidewalks and above the stage on walking bridges of the city. It’s very nearly at some points a Steampunk rendering, mixing current technology like cell phones with Victorian-esque touches and oddball choices like boomboxes and jukeboxes. This mix of anachronisms from set designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Wade Laboissoniere will bother those who demand realistic accuracy from their theater. Those willing to suspend their disbelief are in for more treats with this unexpected approach that works well enough in Arena’s production.
It’s not surprising that Dickens portrayed one of his villains, Fagin, as a Jew. British authors from Shakespeare (Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) to Christopher Marlowe (The Jew of Malta) to Graham Greene (who displayed latent anti-Semitism in his early works) have often expressed their British distaste for Jews through unsympathetic depictions of Jewish characters as villainous, evil or lacking in moral standards.
On stage, Fagin’s Jewishness is more often overlooked or ignored, although a recent PBS version of Oliver Twist from 2009 portrayed the conniver with a Yiddish accent. Smith skims over Fagin’s ethnicity for the most part and focuses on her broader view of the ramifications urban poverty and an underclass of working poor bring to a city. Director Smith has discovered a 9-year-old from Virginia’s Fauquier County for Oliver, the innocent but crafty boy that Fagin’s lieutenant the Artful Dodger (slick Kyle Coffman), befriends and helps him escape from Mr. Bumble’s workhouse.
There’s much to like in this production, most particularly the powerhouse singing (especially her rendering of the aching “Where Is Love?”) and acting of Eleasha Gamble as Nancy, a street-wise woman with a heart of gold, caught up in an abusive relationship with rival street thug Bill Sykes, the intimidating, knife-wielding Ian Lassiter. Just a few lighthearted moments temper this production — the improbable courtship of Mr. Bumble (the expansive Paul Vogt) and Widow Corney (eccentric cat lady Rayanne Gonzales) and the even more eccentric undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (the deliciously vampiric Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt) who purchase young Oliver as a child coffin-follower in their doomed funeral business.
As Fagin, Jeff McCarthy displays a well-cut figure in his leather vest, slim pants and floor-length military style swing coat. He’s not sinister, nor particularly Jewish in this Arena Stage rendering. He’s merely — like nearly everyone else in both Dickens’ and Barts’ worlds — greedy and motivated by self-interest.
Yet Fagin takes “lost” boys’ under his wing, offering them a home and a family of sorts — a bit of shelter from London’s mean streets, where he fries up sausages in the morning and tutors the boys in the art of pickpocketing. Fagin’s no angel, nor a pedophile, but he demonstrates a soft spot for his vivacious boy gang. And, while his Jewishness is avoided here for the most part, during Fagin’s second-act solo, “Reviewing the Situation,” the orchestration, particularly the minor key violin, more than hints at an Eastern European klezmer-style to support his song. It’s a good solution that helps connect Fagin to his old Jewish roots without indicting him, as explicitly as Dickens did, as Jewish.
The musical lightens the ugliness of Fagin’s Jewish stereotype, but it remains an uncomfortable subtext.
Smith’s Oliver! is a gritty, gutsy production depicting the danger-filled streets of London and with a rash mix of Steampunk Victoriana and a collection of timeless characters. In taking on the 20th and 21st century, Arena Stage makes the piece more accessible to a new audience — though young children may not take to the darker fringes of the tale emphasized here. The songs and accompanying orchestra under the direction of Paul Sportelli provide a solid foundation to play with Smith’s ideas of a new Oliver! for a new century.
Oliver! through Jan. 3, Arena Stage Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington. Tickets (202) 833-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.