"Oliver Twist" is one of those stories most people know at least a bit about, even if they've never actually read it themselves.
Orphan kid. Crushing poverty. "Please, sir, I want some more." A gang of pickpockets. Creepy adults. Charles Dickens' black humor and unerring ability to both depress us and make us feel all mushy inside.
So add a few catchy songs to Dickens' well-loved tale and what do you get? "Oliver!" the award-winning musical that British National Theatre of America presents at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park through July 28 as part of the Super Summer Theatre series.
"Oliver!" debuted in London's West End in 1960. It's known for birthing several memorable tunes, including "Consider Yourself" and "Food Glorious Food" (which TV addicts might recall as the basis for a cheesy '80's TV ad jingle touting cheese).
Music trivia aficionados also know that "Oliver!" gave America its first look at late Monkee Davy Jones, who played the Artful Dodger when the musical came to Broadway in 1963. Not only was Jones nominated for a Tony award, but he and other cast members performed a scene from the musical on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on the night of The Beatles' first appearance.
But why has "Oliver!" proved to be such a durable musical?
"Honestly, it's the songs," said director Jeynifer Tribbitt. "People have grown up with these songs. Everybody knows some song from 'Oliver!' whether they know it or not."
In addition, Tribbitt continued, "I would venture a crazy guess that most people haven't read 'Oliver Twist' all the way through, but everyone's familiar with the story of 'Oliver!'
"It's such an endearing tale. It's a story of hope, and that's very inspiring. It's the struggle of the underling to survive. It's just a very archetypical story. And, again, the music is so easily memorable."
For U.S. audiences in particular, "Oliver!" speaks in "a British and easily digestible American-slash-English voice," Tribbitt added. "It's the England that Americans imagine."
In staging such a well-known and well-loved, play, "we know there are certain expectations that audiences come in with," Tribbitt said.
For instance, "they want to hear Oliver ask for more," she said. "If you know nothing about Oliver, you know he asks for more."
So, the idea is to let the audience "bathe in those moments and bathe in the songs they've been waiting to hear," Tribbitt said.
But, at the same time, "there's a lot more to the story," Tribbitt said. "It really is a story of hope and survival. There is this wonderful lightness with Oliver, but there is a lot of dark in the piece as well."
This particular production features one intriguing twist that audiences might not be expecting: It's set during the London blitz as a means of exploring a London-in-crisis during two different eras.
"So, it's speaking to a contemporary aesthetic while still maintaining a lot of the classic elements of the piece," Tribbitt said.
Choreography is by Mukhtar O.S. Mukhtar and musical direction is by Angela Chan. Playing the role of Oliver is 12-year-old Sara Andreas.
Tribbitt noted that, because of the part's vocal demands, it's not unusual to cast girls in the role. But, she added, Andreas' performance is "astonishing. I will tell you, Sara is just a gift. She's just this incredible talent."
Andreas said she has been acting since the age of 9. And while she has performed at Spring Mountain Ranch before - where, coincidentally, she played another orphan, in "Annie" - "Oliver!" marks her debut as the lead in a musical there.
Andreas said she has prepared for portraying a young boy in the play by, in part, watching the guys in the cast.
"There are boys in the cast, younger boys about 10 and some who are, like, 13," she said. "So I just watch what they do and try to copy it, but adding my own thing to it."
The production's cast includes about 10 children who were selected from among more than 100 hopefuls.
"We selected these really powerful kids," Tribbitt said. "Each one of the kids brings just such talent and such amazing energy."
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.