By Montague Gammon III
The “music driven” production of Oliver Twist that partners Virginia Stage Company and the Governor’s School for the Arts is not to be confused with the familiar show Oliver.
There’s more than one twist that turns this one away from the 1963 commercial show, though both are based on the same novel by Charles Dickens, and both end the same happy way for their title character.
This is a world premiere of a new adaptation, with a script by VSC Associate Producer Patrick Mullins and contemporary music by Jake Hull. (Mullins, who has been for many years responsible for annually re-staging the company’s version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, promises that his version of Oliver Twist “uses mostly Dickens’ language.”)
Director Mullins – who was also responsible for the widely acclaimed Romeo/Juliet updated staging in 2009 – says the story is basically about “A boy who wants to get out of where he is but doesn’t really know where he is going.” Mullins describes the titular orphan boy as having “a sense of longing for a home [though] he does not really have an idea what that is…he knows only the orphanage and the workhouse.”
He hopes to “demonstrate what Oliver learned’ in his foray from workhouse through the fringes of London’s underworld to eventual absorption into the middle class. “We have to look for what else is out there” in addition to the story of Oliver’s rescue, Mullins says.
In what might be seen as a “hero’s journey” – the original novel was subtitled The Parish Boy’s Progress – Mullins sees resonances between the novelist’s social concerns and 21st Century issues of “class and the plight of the worker,’ of the privileges of “the one percent.”
He likens the working world of England during the 19th Century late Industrial Revolution to a machine in which laborers were dehumanized parts, a machine that can “grind them” to pieces. Gangmaster Fagin, who runs the string of juvenile pickpockets into which Oliver is almost entrapped, is ”one of the movers of a little section of that machine,” a sort of “Pied Piper.” Mullins says this Fagin will be “unique.”
Oliver himself seems to be “kind of a leaf that floats down the river, pushed along through the system.”
Mullins describes the “yearning quality” of songwriter Jake Hull’s music as consistent with Oliver’s “longing for a home.” (Hull was also responsible for the music that accompanied Mullins’ 2014 Town Point Park production of The Tempest.) Mullins praises Hull’s “beautiful way of writing songs of hope that are full of melancholy,” and of the Hull’s use of 19th Century sounds like the hurdy-gurdy, and of Victorian work songs. All serve to “illuminate” the Dickens-Mullins story.
The director speaks especially highly of scenic and props designer Nehprii Amenii (whose other production credits include work with the Alvin Ailey company, Cirque du Soleil, LaMama Experimental Theater and Bread and Puppet Theatre) as a “visual story teller” par excellence.
Like the Virginia Stage Company’s Season 38 opening production of Sing the Rising Sea, this new Oliver Twist was workshopped at Zeiders American Dream Theatre in Virginia Beach, whom Mullins calls “an important part of the community.”
The cast mixes professional Actors Equity performers with local actors and with Governor’s School students, a partnership that provides pro-level experience for the young actors, and says Mullins, a “better cast” for Virginia Stage.
By Charles Dickens,
Adapted by Patrick Mullilns
Music by Jake Hull
Virginia Stage Company
Oct. 28 – Nov. 13
at TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center
340 Granby St., Norfolk