Brit writer-director Neil Bartlett not only manages to shake Lionel Bart’s melodic songs out of one’s head in his sensational stage adaptation of “Oliver Twist,” he makes the audience rethink Dickens’ tale of the most famous child left behind in the starkest and darkest theatrical terms. Not for the littlest of kiddies, this riveting production — which next heads to Gotham for an Off Broadway run — will be a winner for those who like their Dickens served straight up with all its immoral cruelties and moral outrage laid bare.
Sticking strictly to the novel’s text, Bartlett creates a terrifying, lurid and formidable world centered on Rae Smith’s “Penny Dreadful” machine of a set. Filled with levers, pulleys, secret compartments, escape hatches and trap doors, the sinister and transforming stage box is all that’s needed to set the period style and evoke the book’s many locations — from the poorest of workhouses to the plush parlors of London’s elite. Scott Zielinski’s lighting also heightens the production’s mood and melodrama, footlights and all.
With the book’s narrative compressed to a little over two hours, the production’s efficiency and pace make the show the stage equivalent of a thrilling page-turner. Indeed, just as Dickens addresses the reader, the production is well aware of the audience and its own storytelling, often breaking into direct address or even choral song. (Harsh sounding period instruments such as the hurdy gurdy and serpent are played by Fagin’s gang of boy thieves, adding to the show’s astringent texture.)
First staged by London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theater (where Bartlett was a.d. for 10 years), the production views the book’s societal horrors through a Victorian child’s eyes, with all its fear, confusion and distant hope. But with attention to period details and a heightened style, Bartlett puts his own distinct — though often too cool — theatrical stamp to Dickens’ compassionate morality tale, one that can resonate in any era.
The solid, hard-working 13-member American cast revels in the somewhat unnaturalistic ride as they play multiple roles, save for Fagin (Ned Eisenberg) and Oliver (Michael Wartella). Carson Elrod brings a slippery physicality to the entranced narrator and loner resilience to the Artful Dodger. Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald have perverse fun as Mr. and Mrs. Bumble (Airaldi, in particular, is a Dickens creation come to life). Gregory Derelian is a suitably evil Bill Sykes. Wartella gives the 10-year-old Oliver pluck as well as pathos.
But Eisenberg’s unsentimental Fagin is the revelation here. The complex, insidious character is played for all its creepy, desperate and unraveling power. His mad scene in a prison cell at play’s conclusion is chilling. It’s also an interpretation that both embraces and confronts the unnerving Jewish stereotypes of the day, laying them at the audience’s feet. It’s just one of many twists Bartlett creates to make us think of Dickens in a new, dark light.