The Wells Theatre was definitely in the throes of its substantial renovation upon my recent arrival to the Virginia Stage Company’s home for its productions, a week before their newest play with music, Oliver Twist, opened.
Workers had sectioned off the side street going to the theatre, and were busily and loudly working on the building’s exterior. Once inside with Brad Tuggle, VSC’s marketing guru, the controlled chaos of rehearsing and mounting a new production were gratifyingly evident.
I was there to interview a couple members of the cast — GSA student Mikael Gemeda-Breka, who plays the Artful Dodger, and NYC based actor, Correy West, a VSC virgin, who plays Fagin. Both are substantial roles within the Dickens classic, and I was looking forward to our conversations.
Mikael seemed wise beyond his years. I was impressed that a teenager―a student at Maury High School and theater major at GSA—was so very composed, articulate and clear headed about his work as an actor. He tells me about the relationship between the Artful Dodger and Oliver.
“It can be viewed through many lenses,” he says. “Oliver is family. He’s a new member of family and he doesn’t really know the rules of the family yet, and so maybe he needs to be disciplined here and there, but still as such… I believe Dodger does deeply care about him.”
The tale of little Oliver Twist, orphaned at birth, born into a workhouse―in Victorian times these were essentially prisons for orphaned children and the general poor class, where they worked in often horrid conditions, is of course a classic of literature and the stage. It is Charles Dickens’ second novel, and captures the social conditions of 1830s England, via the life of a young orphan, and his journey of discovery, contextualized within the framework of classism, systemic poverty and child labor. Twist’s journey brings him into contact with a mix of colorful characters, including Monks, Nancy, Bill Sikes and Charley Bates.
The Artful Dodger is a key member of the cadre of pick-pockets that Oliver, unbeknownst to him, falls into. “I see them and Dodger as definitely oppressed and caught in the cycle,” says Mikael. As for Fagin, he is the classic archetype of the criminal enterprise head, who exploits the social conditions of the times to enrich himself. Correy, of course, has a sympathetic view of his character, in spite of his often reprehensible actions. Fagin certainly emerges as one of Oliver’s primary tormentors.
“He took a lot of these kids in. He gives them a place to sleep and food. He gives them alcohol and cigarettes, and in return, they go out and pick-pocket for him…” says Correy, about the character of Fagin. He also explains that children of that time, who were born into a lower class, were not treated as children ideally are today. Adulthood began much earlier for them than it should have.
A few days later I discuss his adaption of Oliver Twist with Patrick Mullins, the play’s director and VSC associate producer. He says that the production is a collaboration between himself, music composer Jake Hull, and visual storyteller Nehprii Amenii.
“I knew there was a lot of resonance between the original novel and some of our conditions today; around class…race is an extension of that, although we don’t specifically get into the race conversation in the show.”
What he’s done, though, is cast a remarkable amount of African-American actors in key roles, including the title role of Oliver, Fagin and Nancy. He calls it “color-conscious” casting, as opposed to color-blind. “I believe it’s everyone’s story and I wanted everyone to be represented,” he says.
Patrick describes the adaption as a “Jake Hull concert that tells the story of Oliver Twist.” I pause for a bit, and then he quickly adds that it is very theatrical and has a lot of spectacle of course. “It’s true to Dickens text, but it’s also very celebratory and it’s not Oliver! the musical at all, yet it’s got great music.”
I concur that it has some really solid pop music, composed by and performed on stage throughout the entire play, by noted singer/songwriter, Jake Hull. I experience it opening night, which is interesting this time, because it is the actual first full performance of the production. Because of the logistics of this being at the Roper and not the Wells, there were no previews to build upon. With that considered, issues with miking and sound are somewhat expected, and though, at the show’s beginning, there were a few times where it was a struggle to hear the cast of young actors, that was less the case as the work rolled on.
Nehprii’s set is wonderfully imposing, suggesting the workhouse and work that the orphans are forced into. With its gears, steps, and open rooms, the set is a key member of the cast and story itself, with its flexibility and ease for adaption. As usual, Jeni Schaefer’s costumes are impeccably accurate for the time being portrayed, and dialect coach Steve J. Earle has clearly worked well with the students and professional actors on their accents.
David Hopkins plays Oliver with a satisfying mix of innocence and appropriate despair. He’s still finding his Oliver, but the young actor, who is not a GSA student by the way, is highly charming as the character. Oliver here is more of a symbol of the injustices suffered by the underclass of the time more-so than a fully realized character with identifiable quirks and the like. The rest of the cast, including the large ensemble of GSA students, are all entertaining in their supporting performances. Amongst the leads, Mikael’s Artful Dodger is highly confident and full of contagious energy. He kicks ass in the role, as does the aforementioned Correy as Fagin, John Forkner as Bill Sykes, and Meredith Noel as Nancy. The scenes between her and Forkner have a terror to them, but they never overwhelm the family-friendly show. I also really enjoyed Debrah Moran’s take on Mrs. Brownlow.
In this adaption though, the real star is Jake Hull’s music. The musician himself is onstage playing his piano throughout the entire show. His presence feels essential as a kind of narrator, and songs like “Hold On” and “Where It Begins” make a strong impression, as they move the story along. Overall, VSC’s Oliver Twist packs quite a bit of ambition into its ninety minutes, and succeeds quite nobly as an engaging night of theatre. It is classic Patrick Mullins meets Dickens, set within the expanse of a Jake Hull show. It all, somehow, works.
For tickets, showtimes, and more info, click here.