A new twist on 'Oliver'

Forget everything you learned from the chirpy 1960s musical "Oliver!" – based on Charles Dickens's novel about the perils of the orphan Oliver Twist – except the characters' names and the happy ending. The 2004 London story-theater version, impeccably adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett, has crossed the ocean in a production that displaces sentimentality with a darkly shadowed atmosphere. Bartlett also enlists a series of melancholy songs reminiscent of British music-hall tunes, composed by Gerard McBurney to lyrics derived from Dickens's asides to the reader.

On a stage (designed by Rae Smith) bare of little more than a few props but equipped with the beloved 19th-century theatrical devices of trap doors and multiple hiding places that disclose surprises, a company of 13 excellent actors takes on more than 50 roles. Before transforming into a charmer of an Artful Dodger, Carson Elrod as narrator reads aloud portions of Dickens's text to drive home Bartlett's major theme: "Is the world safe for children?" That question resonates no less now, in a contemporary world torn by conflicts, than in Dickens's England, where the punishing urban landscape held little comfort for a boy on his own. Grade: B+

"Oliver Twist" is playing at American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Mass., through March 24; and in New York City at Theatre for a New Audience, March 29-April 15.

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