If you don’t mind “Oliver!” doing drug deals, it’s a fine show.
The twisted “Oliver!” that opened at Arena Stage Wednesday night keeps a toe in Charles Dickens’s London and the rest of its hard-core, tattooed self in a sunless 2015. You could make this long-adored 1960 musical darker, but not much. The Artful Dodger slyly receives a little bag of white powder in the street. The villain Bill Sykes flashes guns and knives and drones his big song. By the second act, this almost joyless post-punk gangster show is a brutal grind.
A giant bridge soars over the stage in Molly Smith’s production, and you can see the connection she’s trying to make as she revives the treacherous but usually warm adventures of an orphan named Oliver. Visually, the show straddles times and tones: Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes say yes to everything from Victorian cutaway suits to denim jackets and dog collars. The music follows suit, with fat hip-hop beats often thumping below the familiar tunes. The blend creates a show that’s in sync with edgy cable hits — sordid sexuality abounds — and with whatever top hits may be thumping through your earbuds.
No doubt some audiences will be jazzed by that, and there’s a moment in the first act when the approach is truly electric. As the Artful Dodger, the most charismatic of the pickpockets who take Oliver in, Kyle Coffman delivers a “Consider Yourself” that’s dazzlingly confident and original. Under Paul Sportelli’s musical direction, the 13-member orchestra under the stage effortlessly shifts between a conventional rendition of the jaunty melody and something more syncopated, dusky and up-to-the minute. Coffman, a member of the original “Newsies” cast (which capitalized on nonstop athletic dancing), flaunts assured classical technique and then whips into choreographer Parker Esse’s precise moonwalks and street moves. The mashup is mesmerizing.
You buy it, too, when Eleasha Gamble swaggers in as Nancy, Bill’s sassy gal and a default mother figure to the urchins. Sporting a Mohawk and a sleeveless leather vest, Gamble looks as if she’s crashing a biker bar, and again the music takes writer-lyricist-composer Lionel Bart’s original tune and pumps it full of now. Gamble bellows through “It’s a Fine Life” as it transforms from a peppy English beer-hall tune to a defiant blues funk that just might be worth Beyoncé’s time.
Other songs are left begging, though. Esse doesn’t seem to have any ideas for “Be Back Soon,” led by the wily old thief Fagin (who harbors the light-fingered boys — you know all this, right?). Young Jake Heston Miller is an appealing Oliver with a terrific singing voice, although you wish a grown-up would have told him that stretching his arms wide while lying on a casket at the end of “Where Is Love? ” is what’s called “hammy.” Jeff McCarthy has the right deep voice and impish charm for Fagin, but Smith doesn’t lead him through the witty heart of the usually droll and touching “Reviewing the Situation.”
The show really reveals its colors in the second act opener, “Oom-Pah-Pah.” It’s another rousing beer hall sing-a-long that Esse animates with a forceful, stomping dance. Smith makes the scene aggressively boozy, though, with the drugs now circulating through this den of thieves in a way that’s impossible to ignore.
As Bill, Ian Lassiter’s chanting of “My Name” isn’t charismatic — it’s just thuggish and dull; he’s the kind of creep you don’t even want to watch. The sensationalism feels weirdly gratuitous: You never would have expected an “Oliver!” that could run in tandem with Signature Theatre’s recent icky politics-and-addiction oddity “The Fix.”
What’s gained – street cred? Authenticity? A proud stand declining to ratify Bart’s sanitizing of the true grittiness of Dickens? A meaningful recognition of widening economic gaps as the kids sleep rough in dirty sleeping bags and generally subsist in designer Colin K. Bills’s sewer-green light? Set designer Todd Rosenthal’s vast bridgework gives the cast lots of avenues for chase scenes, and you can’t say the music sabotages Bart’s compositions; in particular, the songs are a respectful and often smart remix. But overall the show doesn’t justify its excesses as it snuffs Bart’s bright spirit. It’s just a gloomy stab in the dark.
Music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart. Directed by Molly Smith. With Paul Vogt, Rayanne Gonzales, Kyle Schliefer, Tom Story, Dorea Schmidt, Lara Zinn, Chaz Jackson, Jesse Palmer, Catherine Flye, Lauren Gemelli, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Kyle Vaughn, Ian Anthony Coleman, Mohammed Badawi, Sebastian Gervase, Henry Niepoetter, Ethan Van Slyke, Jane Bunting and Jimmy Mavrikes. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Through Jan. 3 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington. Tickets $50-$127, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org