Theater / Film

Area Stage Co. adds immersive twist to classic musical ‘Oliver!’

Written By Christine Dolen
February 6, 2024 at 6:44 PM

Hallie Walker’s Oliver sings with Fagin’s boys in the immersive Area Stage Company production of “Oliver!” in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Previews start Wednesday, Feb. 7 with an opening set for Saturday, Feb. 10. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Miami’s Area Stage Company has returned to the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater this week, ready to open its newest immersive production. This time without a Disney character in sight.

As popular as the company’s earlier Disney fare has been – 2022’s “Beauty and the  Beast” came first, followed by “The  Little Mermaid” in 2023 – fans who saw artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz’s reimagined “Annie” at the company’s South Miami space in 2021 know that his passion for creating inventive immersive productions of all sorts of shows is boundless.

Lionel Bart’s much-loved “Oliver!,” which begins previews Wednesday, Feb. 7 through Friday, Feb. 9, and opens Saturday, Feb. 10, is the next big musical to ignite Rodaz’s imagination. The production runs through Sunday, Feb. 25.

Staci Stout plays The Artful Dodger in Area Stage’s “Oliver!” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

“’Oliver!’ is a project, like ‘Annie,’ that is very personal to me,” says Rodaz, who succeeded his father John as Area’s artistic director in July. “It has been many years of thinking about it.”

Bart wrote the 1960 British musical’s book, music and lyrics, basing it on Charles Dickens’s hefty 1838 novel “Oliver Twist,” which was inspired in part by Dickens’s boyhood experiences living with his family in a London debtors’ prison as well as his adult opposition to prison-like workhouses. The musical follows the impoverished orphan Oliver (played in Area Stage’s production by Hallie Walker) from the workhouse to a forced apprenticeship with an undertaker to a street life with the wily Fagin (John Mazuelos) and his gang of pickpocket kids.

“‘Oliver!’ is a project that I immediately hooked onto because I was profoundly moved by the story and how it manages to connect us with these characters from all walks of life,” says Rodaz. “The musical is equally masterful in how it captures the spirit of the novel’s winding story in a two-hour show.”

Giancarlo Rodaz, left, and Frank Oliva have brought Area Stage Company’s immersive sets to life. (Photo courtesy of Andres Hernandez)

What will be different about Area Stage’s “Oliver!?”  Perspective, for one thing, which the audience, sitting at tables in the “workhouse,” will experience as the actors move all around the space.

“The adults will walk on stilts, so you see the show from Oliver’s perspective.  I  wanted to reorient it to the perspective of a child — they are towering over you. It’s creepy and cool. You understand his fears,” says Rodaz.

A key partner in making the director’s immersive dreams come true is Carbonell Award-winning set designer Frank Oliva, who smiles over Zoom as he calls Rodaz “the brains of the operation.”  Oliva got his start in theater at Area Stage when he was 15 and now designs for theaters throughout the U.S. — most recently, the set for Washington D.C.’s Gala Hispanic Theatre world premiere of Cristina Garcia’s “Las Hermanas Palacios,” a version of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” set in 1985 Miami.

The cast performs a merry dance in Area Stage’s “Oliver!” in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Oliva and Rodaz sent drawings and images of life in Victorian London to each other, did screen sharing, texted or just spoke on the phone throughout the creative process for “Oliver!.”

“We knew that the set had to be an oppressive, historically accurate, dynamic space,” says Oliva of his Victorian workhouse design.  “We went through 25 to 30 orientations, and I think it was ultimately iteration 25 that we chose.”

As he did with “Annie,” Rodaz is using a smaller-than-usual cast of 10 adult actors (four of whom play two roles each) and no children. He had intended to cast a boy in the title role but asked Walker, who played Ariel’s sidekick Flounder in Area’s “The Little Mermaid,” to audition.

Hallie Walker is the first adult woman to play the role of the young boy Oliver. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

She sent me a video of her singing ‘Where Is Love?’ The depth of character, the heartbreak . . . I had to cast her as Oliver,” says Rodaz.

Walker is the first-ever adult woman to play the young Oliver in a production.

“It’s a very new take, and it works pretty well,” says the actress. “There’s so much Oliver has seen, so much innocence he’s lost. A lot of the adults use stilts, so it really does look as if I’m a child.”

The juicy part of the persuasive Artful Dodger is being played by Staci Stout, who had the title role in Area’s “Annie.”  She stepped away from acting after that show to focus on writing music, but she’s finding a connection with her role in “Oliver!.”

“I have a lot in common with him.  I feel naturally masculine and androgynous. When I sing, I drop into more of a growl. I had a lot of practice with this hardcore band I’ve been in…And I get to play the banjo and play the bucket as a drum,” says Stout.

Staci Stout as The Artful Dodger, left, and Hallie Walker as Oliver on the immersive set of Area Stage Company’s production of “Oliver!” inside the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

The other boy pickpockets in Fagin’s gang will be played by puppets designed by the New York-based Phantom Limb Company. The effect, Rodaz says, is like having 20 actors onstage instead of 10.

Of course, “Oliver!” has plenty of unforgettable adult roles too.

Frank Montoto plays the violent and abusive Bill Sikes, as well as the cruel workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble.  Mazuelos has the major role of  Fagin and a smaller one as Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker.  Annette Rodriguez is the Widow Corney, who joins Mr. Bumble in mistreating the orphans.  Katie Duerr is Mrs. Sowerberry and Ms. Bedwin, Greta Hicks plays Bet and Charlotte, Luke Surretsky is Noah Claypool  and Carbonell winner Tico Chiriboga is Mr. Brownlow, the man who makes a true difference in Oliver’s life.

As Nancy, the frequent victim of Bill Sike’s cruel wrath, Ashlee Waldbauer gets to sing some of the most unforgettable songs in “Oliver!” – particularly the mournful, soaring solo “As Long as He Needs Me.”  The actor had played one of Fagin’s boys as a kid, then was Nancy in a high school production.

“That was one of my bucket list characters to revisit,” says the New York-based Waldbauer, who heard about Area Stage through her friend Marilyn Caserta, who starred in many Area shows and went on to appear on Broadway in “Six the Musical.”

Ashlee Waldbauer plays the tragic Nancy in Area Stage Company’s “Oliver!” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

“I’ve never done immersive theater,” says Waldbauer. “I wanted to try something new. I haven’t been in a space in a very long time where everything was so collaborative…Nancy is a light to Fagin’s boys. I’m not afraid to lean into her hope.”

Nor is Rodaz afraid to lean into treating a musical classic like “Oliver!” the same way he would a new work.

“Being able to approach it in a new way makes it feel like I discovered one of the greatest stories of all time, and I get to bring it to life how I see fit,” he says. “How often does a storyteller get that opportunity?”

WHAT: Area Stage Company’s “Oliver!” 

WHERE: Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: Previews 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, Thursday, Feb. 8, Friday, Feb. 9, and 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10. Opens 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10 with regular performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 25

COST:   $68 general admission plus additional fees, $ 36.50 student seats with promo code OLISCHOOL (student ID required for ticket pickup) plus additional fees, $31 lap seating for children, 2 and under, plus additional fees. Lap seating available at box office only on day of show.

INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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