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ART's 'Oliver Twist' puts new twist on Dickens' tale

"Oliver Twist"
Adapted & directed by Neil Bartlett; music by Gerard McBurney; set & costume design by Rae Smith; lighting design by Scott Zielinski; sound design by David Remedios

John Dawkins, the Artful Dodger – Carson Elrod
Oliver Twist – Michael Wartella
Mr. Bumble – Remo Airaldi
Mrs. Bumble – Karen MacDonald
Mr. Sowerberry/Mr. Grimwig/Mr. Fang – Thomas Derrah
Bill Sykes/Mrs. Sowerberry – Gregory Derelian
Nancy – Jennifer Ikeda
Fagin – Ned Eisenberg
Noah Claypole/Tom Chitling – Steven Boyer
Charley Bates – Craig Pattison
Toby Crackit – Lucas Steele
Mr. Brownlow – Will LeBow
Rose Brownlow/Charlotte Sowerberry – Elizabeth Jasicki

Performances: Now through March 24
Box Office: 617-547-8300 or online at

The most difficult aspect of dramatizing a well-known and well-loved work of literature is finding the correct balance between maintaining the integrity of the original work and adding elements to justify the adaptation. The recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line was criticized for being a carbon copy of the original production, while the short-lived, musicalized version of The Wedding Singer film was criticized for changing key plot points. How, then, can an adaptation to the stage do justice to the original work as well as bring the material to life in a new and innovative way?

Neil Bartlett seems to know the secret. In his adaptation of "Oliver Twist," the classic novel by Charles Dickens, Bartlett captures the dark, dank world of the young orphan in a way that Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! fails to do. There are no upbeat songs about "Oom-Pah-Pah!" or considering yourself part of the family; Bartlett's Oliver Twist is no musical comedy.

Rae Smith's "black box" of a set, sparsely decorated and drably defined in shades of black and grey, serves as the stage on which the actors tell the tale of the young boy's search for family. In sharp contrast to the dark hues of the set and costumes, Scott Zielinski's lighting design, featuring stark white lights, highlights the grim undertones of the story. Scene changes are motivated and carried out by the actors, who assemble and arrange crates and planks into various formations and crank up and down signs to suggest different settings. The actors are in control of their environment: Fagin lowers his hand and the lights dim; he laughs and the light suddenly changes. Mr. Bumble bangs his staff against the floor, moving the actors into formation and signaling them to begin eating. They are very conscious of their audience, constantly performing and even directly addressing the audience at points throughout the show.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Oliver Twist is the fluidity with which the actors move in and out of their characters. Most remarkable is the performance of Carson Elrod as a narrator and the Artful Dodger, who switches between accents, mannerisms, and costumes with seamless ease. Playing the title role of Oliver is Michael Wartella who, despite his minimal actual lines, nevertheless creates a strong presence onstage through his wide-eyed looks of fear and trembling meekness. Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald provide contrasting comic relief in their hilariously acted portrayals of Mr. and Mrs. Bumble.

Oliver Twist is not a musical, although there is music. The ensemble functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and offering insight into the characters. Gerard McBurney's grating, monotonic drone, accompanied by actors playing a violin, serpent, and hurdy-gurdy, adds to the eeriness of the piece, although at times it seems unnecessary and rather irritating. The highlight of Bartlett's Twist is certainly not the musical component, but rather the emotions it evokes in relation to the overall work.

Bartlett's decision to use (for the most part) solely the words of Dickens preserves the integrity of the original story and helps the show stay true to its nature and tone. In keeping with this theme, Bartlett chooses to portray the scene before Fagin is executed in which Fagin goes mad and tries to attack Oliver, a scene which is usually omitted from staged versions and is brilliantly played out in this production by Ned Eisenberg. The death of the Artful Dodger is also one that does not appear often, but which Bartlett includes, as Dickens intended.

Bartlett's darkly humorous and shadowy Twist provides an innovative and very real glimpse into the original world penned by Dickens. Featuring a stellar design team and cast, the A.R.T.'s production of Oliver Twist is a theatrical experience that will sear its images into the minds of theatergoers, unlike any other staged versions of the classic tale. 

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From This Author Katie Schick

Katie Schick is a student at Harvard University, majoring in Music, Theatre, and Sociology. She currently sings in the Harvard University Choir, performs with the (read more...)