That exclamation point in the title of "Oliver!" could also apply to the surprising departure the show represents for two of its adult leads -- Andrew Long as Fagin and Peggy Yates as Nancy -- in the production at Olney Theatre Center through Dec. 31.

Long, a frequent player at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, honed his classical skills in a master's program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Washington audiences have seen him in roles as varied as the fascistic title character in "Coriolanus" and Oberon, king of the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He hadn't performed in musical theater in this area before, so those who've seen him at the Lansburgh may be surprised by his melodious baritone and comic shtick in "Oliver!"

Long says classical acting chops come in very handy playing Charles Dickens's famous reprobate. "I think it helps me immensely just by having the calluses, if you will, from having to do large chunks of language," he says.

In Shakespeare, "the moments are epic. And being able to kind of transfer that into a much thinner book and still find those moments and know how to find the size of it" is where he says the classical skills kick in.

"What intrigued me was that so many great actors" have played Fagin, Long says. Yet he didn't rent the 1948 film of "Oliver Twist" with Alec Guinness, or see the new Roman Polanski version with Ben Kingsley. "If I did anything that they did, I wanted it to be completely by accident," he laughs.

Young actors alternate at Olney in the roles of Oliver and the Artful Dodger, which gives Long another challenge -- the need to improvise. "I never have the same children from show to show, so it's spontaneous. . . . The sooner I embraced the kind of jazz form of it, the better I was served. The more playful I am with it, the more alert the child actors are. They seem to have more fun if they're not sure what I'm going to do."

Yates is known for playing rather demure characters, using her clear soprano in leads or featured roles in musicals such as Olney's "She Loves Me" or Arena Stage's "Camelot." Now she's flexing her old belting muscles to sing the lower-register, more raucous role of Nancy, the streetwalker and thief who befriends Oliver Twist. "It's vocally and physically demanding, but it is a lot of fun to play," says Yates.

Nancy is "not the most upstanding citizen," yet she risks -- and loses -- her life saving Oliver from her violent boyfriend, Bill Sikes.

At a talk-back with the audience after a recent performance, Yates told of one woman's "burning question."

"She said, 'Don't you think Nancy should be rewritten for a modern audience, because we don't want to glamorize abusive relationships,' " Yates recalled. "I thought, in my book, it's not glamorized to die at the hands of your lover."

Nancy's big number, "As Long as He Needs Me," is her pledge to stick by her man, but her real anthem is "It's a Fine Life."

"It captures who she is and the kind of positive spin she puts on life," Yates says. "She makes tragic choices . . . but what I love about her is she's not a victim of that. She refuses to be a victim."

Ephesus Goes Hollywood

Scenic and costume designer Zack Brown conjured a place "long ago and far away in the Orient" for "The Comedy of Errors," at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through Jan. 8. It was to be "vaguely Turkey" but not too specific as to time or place.

Brown presented his ideas to director Doug Wager, including the Daliesque clock that became a key element of the half-surreal, half-Golden Age of Hollywood set. "Doug has the ability to take what I give him and run with it in a big way and embellish it and improve -- always," says Brown, who worked with Wager before, including on Arena Stage's 1999 production of "The Royal Family."

After Brown offered Wager the idea of the iconic Dali image, he says, Wager came up with the ultimate Act 2 punch line for the seemingly melting clock. Another sight gag Backstage won't give away is "the stupid camel," for which Brown claims full responsibility.

Critics and others have noticed elements in his sets of other hallucinatory artists. "There are so many allusions to the fact that it's a nightmare or a dream and that immediately makes you think of surrealism," explains the New York-based designer. But "if you're in an environment that's totally confusing to you, you think of Escher -- staircases that go nowhere -- or de Chirico's stairways and blind archways . . . it's good because it's not very specific architecture. You can't tell where it is."

Brown's "Comedy" costumes tend more toward the silver screen than the art world. For the twin Antipholuses, he thought of Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik." For the women, he turned to the work of early 20th-century fashion designers Paul Poiret and Fortuny, because they "did a lot of things with Middle Eastern influence." Real Middle Eastern women's styles wouldn't do, he says; "You don't see much body . . . that's not going to work for physical comedy."

Follow Spots

* The Actors' Center will have a free staged reading of Nikolai Gogol's "The Government Inspector" Monday at 8 p.m. in Round House Theatre's Silver Spring space. Stephen Fried, resident assistant director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, will be at the helm of the comedy about government corruption. Call 703-413-3270 or visit

* Broadway director Harold Prince ("The Phantom of the Opera," "Cabaret," "Candide," "Evita," "Company") will chat with Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser Monday evening in the Terrace Theater, as part of the center's Voices of the Arts series. Tickets for the 7:30 program are $10. Call 202-467-4600.

* The National Theatre is celebrating its 170th birthday tomorrow by inviting 170 performing arts students and their teachers to the opening day of "Les Miserables."

Above, the Shakespearean actor Andrew Long as Fagin, with J. Bradley Bowers as the title character in "Oliver!" at Olney Theatre Center. At left, Meghan Touey, Bowers and Peggy Yates, who usually plays more reserved characters, as the prostitute Nancy.