Ask for seconds at ‘Oliver’

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"Please, sir, I want some more."

These words put in motion the Charles Dickens' classic, "Oliver Twist," a tale of a poor orphan struggling to survive on the streets in Victorian-era London.

Arena Stage serves up helpings of talent in this classic tale with a dollop or two of modern-day touches. The story line remains the same: Boy's mother dies after giving birth, he lives with other orphans in a workhouse until one day when he is tenacious enough to ask for seconds of his gruel.

Oliver, played by Jake Heston Miller, 9, an actor and a fourth-grader from Warrenton, brings the urchin to life with blonde locks and a voice that blends his innocence with his fight to survive.

"Never before has a boy wanted more," said Mr. Bumble, the head of the workhouse. "Won't ask for more when he knows what's in store," said the Widow Corney, the workhouse mistress.

Paul Vogt and Rayanne Gonzales are larger than life as they discuss the errant orphan while flirting with each other.

Reprimanded and removed from the workhouse, the orphan is sold to the local funeral director, Mr. Sowerberry.

In the style of the quirky tavern-keepers in "Les Miserables," Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry provide comic relief to their master plan of buying another workhouse boy to be a "junior coffin follower." The oddball couple with their priceless sneers can't tame the orphan Oliver, who runs away.

"Where Is Love?" Oliver's sweet song of longing for his mother asks, "Where is love? Does it fall from skies above? … Where is she who I close my eyes to see?" He nails the song and as his tempo slows and his phrasing gets choppy, the audience sees and hears him drift off to sleep.

Wandering the streets of London, Oliver meets the Artful Dodger, played masterfully by Kyle Coffman, who promises him a place in the "home" of Fagin with the well-known tune, "Consider Yourself." Coffman's dance solo to a modern beat shows his cunning and sleight of movement as a master pickpocket.

The set design and lighting bring the audience to the dwelling under London Bridge, as Fagin's "crime ring" welcomes Oliver to their motley crew. Jeff McCarthy as Fagin belts out "Pick a Pocket or Two" as an instructional welcome to Oliver. Later, Fagin's "Be Back Soon" and the refrain, "Bring back plenty," belie his role as the master con artist with a soft spot for his young charges.

As with almost anything Arena does in this space, the company uses the stage well as perhaps another character in the play. The sky bridge is the perfect setting for pocket-picking, a chase scene and a dramatic climax. The intimate setting in the Fischlander Stage offers the characters a chance to play to the audience, with an occasional comment, nod or tap on the knee.

Eleasha Gamble plays Nancy, a friend to Fagin and the boys. Her incredible voice could carry the entire play, but the strong cast holds its own at every turn.

Gamble's rendition of "It's a Fine Life" and "He Needs Me" propel the story along, but only after taking the breath from the audience with nearly every note.

Not to spoil things, the story continues for several courses of tasty favorites like "Oom-Pah-Pah" and "I'd Do Anything," one of the more familiar songs, that showcases the main characters as well as the chorus.

Fagin's "Reviewing the Situation" is a highlight of the last few scenes showcasing McCarthy's prowess as the ring leader looking out for himself with an escape plan.

Dickens' story, born of his impoverished childhood, still rings true when you look at statistics of children and families living in poverty and the inequity of the upper class and the working poor. This telling with modern flavor - hair and clothing with a punk touch, a boom box, cell phones - adds a bit of bawdy spice and a side of double entendre making it unsuitable for young children.

"Oliver" runs through Jan. 3.

Augherton can be reached at aaugherton@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

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