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Arena Stage serves up Dickens’ ‘Oliver!’ with a modern ‘twist’

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in 'Oliver!' at Arena Stage. (Margot Schulman)

WASHINGTON — Consider yourself invited to a show you’ll enjoy like the Dickens.

Arena Stage presents the hit musical “Oliver!” with a modern “twist” now through Jan. 3.

Based on the book by Charles Dickens, orphan Oliver Twist (Jake Heston Miller) is booted from his London orphanage after holding up his soup bowl to say, “Please, sir, I want some more.” He crosses paths with the Artful Dodger (Kyle Coffman), who invites him to join a group of pickpockets run by Fagin (Jeff McCarthy) under crime boss Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter) and his gal Nancy (Eleasha Gamble).

“Jake Heston Miller, who we have playing Oliver, is a phenomenal young kid,” McCarthy tells WTOP. “We had a table read, for a week we sat around, and it came around to him, and (director Molly Smith) would ask him questions, and he would speak up as though he were this middle-aged guy, completely confident in his opinions about things. He is 10 years old, but I’ve never seen a kid so focused.”

As for his own role, McCarthy loves the complex nature of Fagin.

“His morality bubbles up and humanizes him, but yeah he’s a slimeball,” says a grinning McCarthy, who studied at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in California with Tony winners like Boyd Gaines and Oscar winners like Kathy Bates and Robin Williams. “I was very lucky.”

The iconic story has seen many incarnations since Dickens wrote it in monthly installments for Bentley’s Miscellany magazine from 1837-1839 and published it as the novel “Oliver Twist” in 1838.

By the 20th century, the story saw a number of film adaptations, including Frank Lloyd’s silent film “Oliver Twist” (1922), starring Lon Chaney as Fagin, and David Lean’s classic “Oliver Twist” (1948), starring Alec Guinness as Fagin in a movie voted among the Top 50 British Films of All Time.

The first stage musical arrived in 1960 at London’s West End before hitting Broadway in 1962. The catchy music and lyrics of Lionel Bart introduced the world to such legendary songs as “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “Where is Love,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Be Back Soon,” “Oom-Pah-Pah,” “Who Will Buy” and “As Long as He Needs Me.”

Literature, stage and screen all collided into the legendary 1968 British movie musical “Oliver!” Directed by Carol Reed (“The Third Man”), the film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Director, beating out Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The new Arena Stage show is a more contemporary take than these previous versions.

“It’s going to differ hugely,” McCarthy says. “When we got to the first day of rehearsal, Molly Smith our director … announced that we were going to set this in 2015. And we all raised our eyebrows and thought, ‘Really?’ Well, it’s turned out to be this vast, fascinating experiment.”

So how does the show meld our traditional understanding of “Oliver” with new surprises?

“There will be a tip of the hat to the Victorian age and all of that, design wise,” McCarthy says. “But we just got the rights from the Lionel Bart estate, the writer of the thing, to update some of the orchestrations, and there will be a little bit of rap involved in this production. All sorts of liberties are being taken, and so far, they’re working beautifully. … It really is a fascinating experiment.”

Indeed, those who attend the shows are in for a treat as soon as the Artful Dodger hits the stage for “Consider Yourself,” as actor-dancer Kyle Coffman glides across the stage like Michael Jackson.

“He’s an original. I love this guy a lot, and it works well for our relationship on stage,” McCarthy says. “He’s a fabulous dancer. … He begins with this sort of break-dancy thing, and slowly people show up from different parts of town into this town square, and it turns into this huge flash mob. There are cellphones, there’s people taking videos of what’s going on, we have that whole culture happening.”

While the dance moves are more modern, the themes translate perfectly to 2015 with contemporary echoes of Dickensian class divides.

“As Molly announced, the homeless situation in London apparently in 2015 is in fact worse than it was in Dickens’ time, that he would in fact be appalled by what has become, and that certainly resonates in this country as well,” McCarthy says. “Also, when we were doing the table read, it was resonating regarding refugees. Some of the kids — because we have several little guys in the show — amazingly were up on all that news stuff regarding refugees in Syria and Europe and such. We were doing improvs and they were bringing all of this topical stuff into the improv.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Amid the heavy themes, “Oliver!” is also rousing entertainment.

“There’s a happy ending to it, in fact, which is great,” McCarthy says. “And there’s the great number ‘Who Will Buy?’ where suddenly Oliver throws open the shutters and it’s this beautiful, bright, sunny day as a change of pace from the very dark universe that he lives in otherwise with Fagin.”

When it’s all over, the audience will be the one saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

“We have a phenomenal group of people here. Molly focuses on people’s humanity and compassion and it’s an incredibly focused, intelligent, imaginative group. … The songs are incredibly familiar and deeply loved for years and years, but this 2015 take on the production is exciting all of us a great deal, and I think is going to get a lot of buzz around town, and may even generate interest back in New York, because there hasn’t been a revival of this in 20 years or something. Who knows?”

Listen below to the full interview with Jeff McCarthy, conducted prior to show’s opening.

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