Home for the Holidays

D.C. Theaters Serve Family Fare
Photograph By
Margot Schulman

Kyle Coffman as Artful Dodger and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater 10/30/15 – 1/3/16. 

Washington is a hub of earnest, provocative, relevant theater—where even the classic American musical or Shakespearean comedy is infused with at least a thread of social commentary. But by December, even Washington’s theaters take a break from consciousness-raising to embrace the holiday spirit and indulge in some comfort food. It’s time to enjoy heartwarming fare for the whole family.

Arena Stage kicks of the season with Oliver!, a sugar-coated treat that’s every bit as bright and entertaining as it was when its host of memorable songs debuted in 1960. Despite director Molly Smith’s sobering program notes linking the show to the plight of today’s homeless children, from the production’s first notes it’s clear we’re not diving too deeply into the gritty streets of urban America or even Victorian London. As ever, in this show good people thrive, bad people get their due and kids are just plain cute—even if their comfort and security are determined, more than anything else, by accidents of birth.   

Set designer Todd Rosenthal recreates life under the bridge where most of the play takes place, with green-tinged iron catwalks overhead and a floor peppered with sewer grates, all in shadowy lighting by Colin K. Bills. Here dwells Oliver Twist, a tiny, feisty orphan played by Jake Heston Miller. It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a 9-year-old to dance like a pro and express an abundance of sorrow, fear, rage and wit. But Miller has the role’s two essential qualities: unsaccharine charm and vocal pipes as clear and resonant as a flute. His first pitch-perfect solo, “Where Is Love,” is worth the price of admission.

But it’s Eleasha Gamble who steals the show. As Nancy, the fallen woman with a heart of gold, she first storms the stage in spirited renditions of “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-Pah-Pah,” and then transforms into a formidable torch singer in “As Long As He Needs Me.” Her performance deserves a standing ovation on the spot, and thankfully Gamble has a chance to reprise it before the show ends.

In between, Oliver! is a showcase for delightful bits, starting with the comedic flirtation between the evil Mr. Bumble (Paul Vogt) and the Widow Corney (Rayanne Gonzales) in “I Shall Scream,” followed by the near-immediate dissolution of their romance in “Oliver.” Both numbers lend not just humor but also full rein to Gonzales’ marvelous voice. As Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, the ever-cheeky Tom Story and menacing Dorea Schmidt are a hoot, and Jeff McCarthy is in fine form as Fagin, the leader of a pickpocket gang of kids.

Most appealing of all is the charismatic Kyle Coffman as Artful Dodger, who rescues Oliver from the streets. His distinct style of singing and dancing—choreographed by Arena veteran Parker Esse—anchor memorable renditions of the show’s crowd-pleasing favorites: “Consider Yourself” and “I’d Do Anything.”

After the show, you may not find yourself pondering weighty social issues, but everyone in the family will be humming a tune.

Oliver!, at Arena Stage, through Jan. 3

 

A Christmas Carol

There’s another seasonal dose of Dickens at Ford’s Theater, where Washington legend Ed Gero brings Scrooge to life in A Christmas Carol—for the seventh time. It’s a miraculous gift that Gero discovered his aptitude for embodying this role but keeping it fresh, and that now he returns to recreate it year after year. Adapted by Michael Wilson and directed by Michael Baron, this production is lavish, haunting and buoyant, with all the color and character Dickens deserves.

A Christmas Carol, at Ford’s Theater, through Dec. 31

 

Black Nativity

Theater Alliance reprises another holiday treasure with Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, a Helen Hayes Award-winning production that begins with the Christmas story before tracing the history of African-American music, from gospel to blues, jazz and funk. It’s a deeply moving and musically thrilling journey, featuring an ensemble cast of accomplished Washington theater veterans and promising newcomers.

Black Nativity, at Anacostia Playhouse, Dec. 11 – Jan. 4

 

For home-grown festive music and dance, don’t miss Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show. This world-renowned step dance company presents its electrifying mix of stomps, claps and chants, set to holiday tunes with a sprinkling of snowflakes and visits by life-size polar bears and other furry friends. As always, audience members—and especially kids—are invited to make some noise throughout the show and join the cast on the dance floor at the end.

Step Afrika

Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, at The Atlas Theater, Dec. 11 – Dec. 22

 

Adventure Theater adds a world premiere to our holiday roster, A Lump of Coal for Christmas. Written by Charles MacArthur and Regional Emmy Award recipient Norman Allen, directed by Helen Hayes Award-winner Holly Twyford and featuring the acclaimed Erin Weaver, this comedy holds abundant promise. According to Adventure, it’s about a lump of coal who wants to be an artist: “Traditionally the dreaded stocking stuffer for children on the Naughty List, this Lump turns one child’s worst nightmare into a dream come true.” What’s not to love?

A Lump of Coal

A Lump of Coal for Christmas, at Adventure Theater through Dec. 31

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater 10/30/15 – 1/3/16.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.


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