BWW Review: OLIVER TWIST Cries Forward at Virginia Stage Company
The stage is set simply with a grand piano, Jake Hull enters dressed smartly in 19th century garb: vest, coat, top hat. As composer and music director for this adaptation of Oliver Twist he is positioned on stage with cellist Amos Housworth to perform the score for each show. Performing a concert of sorts of his original music inspired by the Dickens' tale, he begins singing as the story of Oliver Twist, adapted and directed by Patrick Mullins, condensates around him, emerging from the vapor of his voice. The peripheral cast, beautifully costumed by Jeni Schaefer and consisting of approximately 18 current students of the Governors' School of the Arts, enters from all locations adding their voices to repeat Hull's main phrase "those behind cry 'Forward!', those in front cry 'Back!'". Referencing Macaulay's poem "Horatius", Hull intends to prepare us for battle. Physical and societal. Though this particular story is set in 19th century London, it is actually one of humanity, one of change, tradition, and perception based on position. What part of your path is destined and what part is choice? The stage transforms and reveals multi-tiered scaffolding with symbolic cogwheels attached. This will serve as the entire setting for the play, save small furniture pieces brought in and out for various scenes. Designed by Nehprii Amenii and creatively lit by Jared A. Sayeg, it is used effectively throughout the production, which runs 90 minutes in length, to portray the dense novel of Oliver Twist. The twist of course is wrangling this extremely convoluted and character filled story.
"I have always loved big stories." Mullins said "We had an encyclopedia sized anthology of mythology on the large built-in bookcase that anchored our living room growing up. I loved those stories. They excited me, scared me, and titillated me. My mind soared with the adventures of the characters and my stomach tightened at the mention of things I couldn't understand. Oliver Twist is one of our modern-day myths of a sort. It is a hero's journey. A boy, born in less than fortunate circumstances, makes his way through trials and tribulations to find some sort of happy ending. So, of course I wanted to dive into it and explore the many topics around class and society and humanity that are very resonant today."
Mullins has brought together a talented cast of professional actors in addition to the GSA students to highlight those topics. Most notably: Correy West with his unnervingly large grinning Fagan, John Forkner's intimidating Bill Sikes, Meredith Johnson's good-at-heart Nancy, and of course Bruce Warren and Ailish Riggs as the greasy, scheming duo Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Mann. Oliver Twist works when characters are played more as caricatures. These are Dickens characters at their best. True 'literary characters' they aren't just bad, they're really bad. The story fizzles a little when other portrayals aren't as effective. The difficulty arises in portraying the 'good' or not so clearly over the top characters. That aside, we follow Oliver, innocently and quietly played by David Hopkins, thru this menagerie and we too become cogs in the machine.
On the artistic collaboration, Mullins said, "I love to find multiple artists and set them free on an exploration. That's what I did with Jake. He researched the music and came up with his own points of view about the story. I had a similar process with visual designer and storyteller Nehprii Amenii. Then we all compared notes, found the places of impact that overlapped to us, and built the view points and storytelling from there. I approached Jake specifically because I feel like his music is always hopeful, and yet has a melancholy about it that felt appropriate for a character that has had a tough life and still hopes for more." With the help of Assistant Director Kathren Martin, Mullins' major task was to smooth the seams created between the three creatives and though slightly uneven at times the intention is clear and lovely. Hull-abies, as I affectionately have titled this score's components, accompany Amenii's dream sequences and Mullins used shadow work to depict various acts of violence. The latter, however, was a bit confusing and could have been better served shown or if the rules of staging were more clearly defined.
The collaboration with the Governor's School of the Arts highlighted some great young talent, specifically the charismatic Mikael Gemeda-Breka as the Artful Dodger. The collaboration with GSA and director Steve Earle has been in the works for some time. "I always thought it was a good idea to pool resources to be able to tell big your stories. And finally, I was in a position to make it happen." Mullins said, "The students in the show have enrolled in a class that is partially rehearsal time. Otherwise they have worked after hours with professional actors in a process that, I think, has made us all better. In the same way that this show takes a slot in the Virginia Stage Company season, this show replaces a production in the Drama Department's season at GSA."
Ambitious and effective, though the sheer magnitude of this undertaking may have stilted certain places, the adaptation is a success and hopefully this kind of collaboration is part of the Virginia Stage company's continued future.
See it: Oliver Twist runs thru November 13 at The Roper Center, Norfolk.
For Info and tickets go to www.vastage.org
Photo Credit: Samuel Flint