Say the words Oliver Twist and the first thing that pops into mind may be a song—“Food Glorious Food,” “Where Is Love,” “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two,” “Who Will Buy”…  Lionel Bart’s songs are so inextricably linked to Charles Dickens’ original story that it’s hard to imagine an Oliver Twist without them, yet British writer-director Neil Bartlett has dared to do so in his 2004 adaptation (“in twenty-four scenes with several songs and tableaux”) entitled Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, now getting a magical L.A. premiere at A Noise Within.

Though fans of the musical will likely be mentally inserting Bart’s songs at appropriate moments, Bartlett’s Oliver Twist proves that the tale works equally well as a straight play, and ANW’s production, directed by an inspired Julia Rodriguez-Elliott is the most imaginative theatrical experience I’ve had since Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, which it resembles.
The cast of fourteen play eighteen major and a few dozen other minor characters, changing costumes and adding or subtracting wigs before our eyes, and even switching genders from time to time.  In addition, though this is not a musical per se, the brilliant David O has composed an original score, some of which uses Dickens’ narration as lyrics sung in harmony by the cast.
Kurt Boetcher’s highly ingenious set design takes advantage of the entire A Noise Within stage, all the way back to the farthest upstage brick walls, around which are scattered ladders, scaffolding, wigs, chairs, hat racks, etc. Onstage throughout most of the performance is violinist Endre Balogh, providing a background score to Oliver’s life with occasional percussion added by cast members striking various props against bits of scenery.
Narrating Oliver’s life story is Shaun Anthony, who will soon transform himself into The Artful Dodger. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The tale begins, as so many of Dickens’ do, with Oliver’s birth, a newborn-sized doll literally popping out from between his mother’s legs and into the midwife’s arms.  Soon, this “naughty orphan which nobody can’t love” is just one among many parentless children being served meager gruel as bewigged judges sit upstage behind them dining on their more lavish fare.  Then, horrors of horrors, young Oliver asks for “more,” and sooner than you can say Oliver Twist, the boy (played by the captivating Brian Dare) is on the selling block and being ordered to “look happy,” the better to fetch a high price.
Sold to a pair of dour funeral directors, the Sowerberrys, Oliver soon gets into fisticuffs with their assistant Noah Claypole and ends up being shut inside a coffin.  Never one to enjoy sleeping among the dead, our young hero escapes, the cast providing rhythmic footsteps (some of them as Foley artists) to accompany him on his journey to London.

An encounter with The Artful Dodger brings Oliver into Fagin’s lair, where he is soon taught lessons in pick-pocketing. Unfortunately, poor Oliver finds himself on the run from the police on his first day on the job (the cast’s chanting of “Stop thief! Stop thief!” punctuating the chase).  Sent before the judge (the sound of whose pounding gavel is provided by cast members striking sticks against the scaffolding), Oliver is given over to Mr. Brownlow (anyone who’s read the novel or seen the musical knows that there’s a secret connection between the two) … but not for long.

Rodriguez-Elliott’s direction is as inventive and visually stunning as was her work in ANW’s superb Man Of La Mancha, and her cast could not be improved upon.

Anthony combines charisma and likeability for a thoroughly winning turn as our narrator/Dodger. Dare is a wonderful Oliver Twist, his angelic face and heartfelt performance making him a perfect choice for the role.  (Bartlett’s concept allows the 20ish actor to play 10 without having to be 10.)

The rest of the ensemble embody two, three, and even more characters, each one a standout.  Tom Fitzpatrick is a truly sinister and scary Fagin, though on a fear scale, he is topped by Geoff Elliott as the evil, violent Bill Sykes. (Elliott doubles amusingly in full female getup as Mrs. Sowerberry.) Robertson Dean is Mr. Sowerberry (among others) and his “I will eat my head. I will eat my head” is a laugh-getter every time. The always splendid Jill Hill does double duty as Mrs. Corney and Nancy (the latter’s murder at the hands of Bill Sykes making for a frightening tableau).  Completing the perfectly Dickensian cast are Jessica Berman, Apollo Dukakis, William Dennis Hunt, Christina Ishizaki, Stephen Rockwell, Aurea Tomeski, Anne Troup, and Tim Venable.

Boetcher, whose work at the Celebration Theatre has brought attention to this most talented young scenic designer, makes his A Noise Within debut here, and a striking one it is, with the onstage scaffolding becoming orphanage bunks, and boxes and sawhorses and ladders turning into an assortment of 19th century London locales including London Bridge.  Ken Booth’s lighting emphasizes the darker nature of this Oliver Twist (as opposed to the musical’s brightening up of the story) and Soojin Lee’s great period costumes make for quick and effective onstage transformations from character to character. 

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist allows A Noise Within’s actors the uncommon opportunity to put a modern spin on a classic tale, and proves the perfect November lead-in to the multiple A Christmas Carol offerings coming up post-Thanksgiving. This is Twist with a twist, and a terrific Twist it is indeed.

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
November 9, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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