A few days ago, I entered a workhouse in Victorian England, part of a fresh influx of destitute children. My fellow audience members at the old Sedgewick Theatre and I were given the rundown by an older orphan with an authentic Dick Van Dyke accent.
We would each receive a bowl of cold and stale gruel, which we had to gulp down without a spoon (no joke). To my surprise and delight, we were given strings of colorful beads—only for street urchins to steal them within minutes. I was afraid for the real necklace I was wearing when I arrived. To make it worse, at intermission, British Bobbies would chase us out of our seats. It was fantastic.
In addition to regular seating, Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of OLIVER!, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, integrates “onstage seating” where we sit at long wooden tables that become part of the stage—with actors liable to step on your fingers if you let them.
The set and props (by the sought-after Doug Greene) are sparse, but anything more would just impede the actors in running and jumping on every flat surface. Trapdoors set in the stage and a few well-chosen props are used to great effect. The words GOD IS JUST, painted on a bare brick wall, loom over all like a threat, pointing out the moral bankruptcy of a society which says that it’s just and fair for lazy, poor people to starve.
A pack of thieves steal the scene
After getting kicked out of the workhouse and then the undertaker’s funeral parlor in short order, Oliver (played perceptively by Lyam David Kilker on the night I went, Benjamin Snyder on alternating nights) goes to “seek his fortune”—but falls into the clutches of a band of pickpockets and petty thieves.
With the arrival of the Artful Dodger (the charming Jacob Entenman), the play hits its stride, rising above broad humor, some accents that needed work, and moments of Orphan Annie twee-ness. The exuberant choreography (Kaki Burns) is at its best here, as the Dodger and the entire company spin, pirouette, and moonwalk around Oliver.
The children’s ensemble, aged 11 to 17, makes a delightfully unruly mob—both as the workhouse orphans badgering Oliver and the street urchins stealing everything that isn’t nailed down.
In this thieves’ den, the costuming (Christina Bullard), spanning traditional and contemporary styles, becomes a visual feast. Fagin (the popular Helen Hayes Award winner Wallace Acton) looks like half a jester and half a king. The company is outfitted in rags-and-patches chic. The use of modern dress—black leather or a leopard print coat–subtly encourages the audience to see that the violence and poverty the characters experience is not restricted to Victorian London, but also present in our society today.
Rescuing OLIVER! from becoming just another Christmas spectacle
The music (by Lionel Bart, who also wrote both book and lyrics, 1960) frequently succeeds in undermining what should be serious scenes with Bartian clichés, ridiculous rhymes, and melodies at odds with the literary demands of the scene—quite an achievement for the director and actors to inject gravitas into these moments.
For example, Bill Sykes (Brock D. Vickers, his neck covered in tattoos) is sinister enough every time he appears to power through clunky material. His capacity for violence is palpable before he’s even said a word. Syke’s mangy, half-feral bull terrier (an ingenious puppet by Martina Plag) looks equally ready to rip your arm off.
Bart’s script does not allow young Kilker as poor Oliver Twist, surrounded by a castful of vivid, fascinating characters, to do much more than be pulled about in different directions and look frightened and/or awed at everything. However, under the thoughtful direction of Alexander Burns, Kilker resists the temptation to mug for the audience when conveying Oliver’s fear. He manages to avoid looking like a kicked puppy. Instead, he helps us to appreciate both the orphan’s naivety and his humanity.
I also appreciated the casting choice of doubling Steven Wright as both the creepy undertaker and Oliver’s benevolent patron Mr. Brownlow, with Philadelphia’s much-loved Marcia Saunders as both the undertaker’s alcoholic wife and the warm, motherly presence of Mrs. Bedwin. The transformation between the polar opposite characters speaks to a repeated question in the play: can someone turn over a new leaf? Can a thief or an abuser redeem themselves?
By the middle of Act II, Nancy (brought to life vividly by Hanna Gaffney) has eclipsed Oliver as the emotional core of the play. She was the character that I wanted a happy ending for—despite knowing that her end would be anything but happy. Gaffney hits every emotional note as Nancy refuses to be seen as just a victim. Excellent action sequences (by fight director Eli Lynn) and dramatic lighting (by Jojo Glodek) help to make the climax of the play absolutely chilling.
Given the same temptations as little orphan Oliver, I would have begged for more food, stupidly let the Artful Dodger lead me into a back alley, been taken in by Fagin’s pretend generosity, joined a vaudeville routine with Nancy, and looked for kindness in all the wrong places.
Hopefully, as the holiday season grows toward its climax, OLIVER!, running now through December 30, will inspire audiences to remember the people in our communities we usually overlook—not only the hungry, the cold, and the homeless, but also the people struggling with their own demons.
[Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue] November 14-December 23, 2018; quintessencetheatre.org