Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Apple Family Cycle: Sorry and Regular Singing
Smith points out in her program notes that issues such as homelessness, child neglect, and social inequality are just as entrenched today as they were when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in the 1830s. The hard edges she brings out of Lionel Bart's book and lyrics were always there; she just adds to their immediacy, aided by Todd Rosenthal's immersive scenic design that places the audience "under the bridge" and in the streets with the characters.
Similarly, musical director Paul Sportelli has introduced some rhythmic variation to Bart's songs that pays off surprisingly well: for example, the workhouse boys put a hip-hop spin on "Food, Glorious Food," while "As Long as He Needs Me" becomes a power ballad. He also leads the strong orchestra from underneath the stage. Parker Esse has created percussive, eye-filling choreography that borrows from both street moves and acrobatics.
Jake Heston Miller is a sweet and guileless Oliver with his white-blond hair and open face. He holds his own alongside pros like Jeff McCarthy, a solidly entertaining Fagin, and Eleasha Gamble as an outwardly tough Nancy with a hidden generous soul. Ian Lassiter is a genuinely menacing Bill Sykes, and the obvious passion depicted between Gamble and Lassiter makes one understand better why Nancy remains devoted to a violent man who beats her.
Performers showing off in smaller roles are the well-matched Paul Vogt as Mr. Bumble and Rayanne Gonzales as Widow Corney, Kyle Coffman as an unflappable Artful Dodger, and Tom Story as the pompous undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. (Why, though, did Smith feel the need to play up the kinky sexual dynamics between Sowerberry and his wife, played as a dominatrix by Dorea Schmidt?)
Rosenthal's set incorporates found objects (a sign for a London Underground station, hot food carts) with a metal bridge high across the stage, allowing for dramatic moments both metaphoricalas when "proper" citizens of London look down on the poor belowand literal, when several characters collide on London Bridge.