It seems like Oliver! comes along just when we need it. In 1968, the year that saw RFK and MLK assassinated and the Vietnam War reaching a fever pitch, the unlikely Oscar winner for Best Picture was “Oliver!”, the film based on the Broadway show.
It’s as if the country needed something that could lift spirits, inspire sing-alongs, and make people forget their worries, if only for a few hours.
And now comes Oliver! The Musical to Arena Stage, just when the daily news noise is growing louder and meaner. Fear (and fear mongering) are wresting control of our collective psyche. Now, maybe more than ever, we need the kind of escape that only the theatre can provide. Forget your cares and enjoy a wonderful night at the theatre.
Director Molly Smith has gently updated the Dickens classic of an orphan boy who only wants “some more” gruel for supper and he longs to find a family. Smith’s London has modern flourishes: a boom box, for instance, and a couple of iPhones make some giggle-inducing appearances.
But the songs keep their well-known arrangements and they sound amazing. The soundtrack to this Musical could have sold millions, even without an actual show attached to it. Think about it: “Food, Glorious Food” and “Where Is Love” and “Consider Yourself” and “As Long As He Needs Me” would make for a great stand-alone album.
Jake Heston Miller plays the title character and this kid can break glasses as well as hearts with his pure and plaintive voice. For a child this young, he has a great understanding of music and absolutely no fear when reaching for the big notes.
The whole cast is versatile and vital. Eleasha Gamble (Nancy) brings the power to the Power Ballad, “As Long As He Needs Me” and has fun with the pub tune “Oom-Pah Pah.” Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt are hilarious as The Sowerberrys. Kyle Coffman has great dance moves, but the songs seem a tad low for his range. Still, he’s charming as the Artful Dodger.
Oliver! retains its original message about income inequality, but it makes its points with laughs, not hammers over heads. And it’s still a musical that stirs hopes and passions and chuckles—a perfect antidote to the day’s headlines. It’s really the perfect show for the holidays.
Oliver! Continues at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through January 3rd. For more information and tickets, please visit: http://www.arenastage.org/