Theater / Film

Review: Area Stage’s ‘Oliver!’ at the Arsht Center wraps audiences in a classic

Written By Christine Dolen
February 12, 2024 at 11:39 AM

Frank Montoto is the menacing Bill Sikes in Area Stage Company’s immersive production of “Oliver!” at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater in Miami through Sunday, Feb. 25. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

When was the last time a piece of theater made you gasp?  Thrilled you, engaged you, delivered a story in such a unique way that even the familiar felt fresh?

Go to Area Stage Company’s production of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” before it ends its too-brief run Feb. 25 in the Carnival Studio Theater a Miami’s Arsht Center,  and you just may experience all of the above.

“Oliver!,” the enduring 1960 musical based on “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens, won the Best Picture Academy Award for its 1968 movie version and has had numerous major revivals over the past 64 years, many from British super producer Cameron Mackintosh (or, as he was knighted in 1996, Sir Cameron Mackintosh).

Hallie Walker as the orphan Oliver in Area Stage Company’s “Oliver!” in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

High schools, colleges and universities, community theaters and regional theaters — including the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, which presented a critically acclaimed production in 2023 — have turned to “Oliver!” when they’re looking for a musical classic with a beloved score and a large cast.

But here’s a truth:  It’s doubtful you’ve seen an “Oliver!” like the one Area Stage has dreamed up.  More accurately, it’s the company’s 28-year-old artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz who has been doing the dreaming.

[RELATED: Christine Dolen’s preview of Area Stage’s “Oliver”]

The Carbonell Award-winning director has been attracting attention locally and in  broader theater circles with his immersive productions of “Annie” in 2021, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” in 2022 and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” in  2023.  “Oliver!,” another collaboration with Carbonell-winning set designer Frank J. Oliva, tops them all.

From the moment you enter an unrecognizable Carnival Studio Theater, you realize that Area Stage’s production is unlikely to be a jaunty musical comedy “Oliver!.”

Oliva has transformed the space into a workhouse in Victorian London, the place where the famished, orphaned Oliver (Hallie Walker) has the audacity to ask for a second helping of gruel in the opening song “Food, Glorious Food.” The walls are weathered brick, the beams above wood, and the sign at the front of the room proclaims “God Is Just.”  Theatergoers sit on benches at wooden tables edged with flickering faux candles, and the tables turn into long, narrow stages whenever actors hop up to play a scene on them.  The effect, with soft light from designer Joe Naftal filtered through the windows, is quite church-like.

Much of the story, however, is anything but balm for the spirit.

Frank Montoto as Bill Sikes is a threatening villain in Area Stage Company’s immersive production of “Oliver!” (Photo courtesy of Frank Oliva)

Against all odds, the impoverished Oliver is a street kid who remains rather naïve and sweetly optimistic.  After the gruel incident, he is sold into an apprenticeship by the greedy workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble (Frank Montoto) and his domineering bride-to-be Widow Corney (Annette Rodriguez).

Undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (John Mazuelos) and his Mrs. (Katie Duerr) scheme to maximize their profit from Oliver by having him walk as a paid mourner behind child-sized coffins.  Servant Charlotte (Greta Hicks) treats the new boy abominably, as she has eyes for another apprentice, Noah Claypole (Luke Surretsky), who taunts and fights Oliver until the new boy winds up confined to a coffin.

After escaping and starving on the streets of London, Oliver meets the irresistibly charming Artful Dodger (Staci Stout).  Dodger takes him home to the crafty Fagin (Mazuelos also plays that role), who runs a gang of juvenile pickpockets and calls the boys “m’dear.”

He also meets Nancy (Ashlee Waldbauer), a vibrant angel who’s something of a mother to Fagin’s gang, and her violent lover Bill Sikes (Montoto in a dual role), a ruthless devil who steals items for Fagin to fence and plays the abusive tyrant with the woman he loves.

For better or worse – and it does get much worse – Oliver has temporarily found his family of choice.

In case “Oliver!” has somehow escaped your notice over these past six-plus decades, the musical juxtaposes an often-jaunty but sometimes aching score against the harrowing story of a homeless boy who too often finds himself imperiled by the uncaring, exploitative adults around him. The stylistic range flows from Bart, the show’s British creator who did everything: adapted (and necessarily trimmed) “Oliver Twist,” then wrote the music and lyrics.

Staci Stout’s Artful Dodger welcomes Oliver into Fagin’s gang in Area Stage Company’s immersive “Oliver!” at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Area Stage’s production brings the joy in numbers such as “Consider Yourself,” “It’s a Fine Life,” “Be Back Soon” and the audience singalong “Oom-Pah-Pah.”  It also showcases melancholy (as Oliver sings a plaintive “Where Is Love”), an abused woman’s codependence (Nancy’s “As Long as He Needs Me), and a man unaccustomed to self-analysis doing just that (Fagin’s “Reviewing the Situation).

People know and love this score, as you’ll see if someone sitting next to you starts mouthing the lyrics or starts singing along. It’s tough to resist that impulse, particularly given the accompaniment of music director/pianist Michael Day, reeds player Frank Capoferri and violinist Liubov Ohrimenco, who sit in an alcove opposite the entryway and play impeccably.

What makes this “Oliver!” so extraordinary and so special are the ideas that came from Rodaz which were then realized by his creative collaborators under his guidance.

The acting company has just 10 adult performers, many with two or more roles, and two key roles usually played by boys – Oliver and the Artful Dodger – are here played by adult women whose work is completely convincing.

Fagin’s “gang” consists of puppets created by Erik Sanko of New York’s Phantom Limb Company. They’re operated and voiced by actors wearing masks that blend with the gaggle of puppets – who look haunted or traumatized, much like Oliver most likely feels inside.

Hallie Walker’s Oliver tries to survive as a London orphan in Area Stage Company’s immersive production of “Oliver!” (Photo courtesy of Frank Oliva)

The first massive “wow” moment in the production occurs when actors wearing full Victorian garb concealing stilts under their clothing enter the room.  Sofia Ortega’s costumes, with necessarily long skirts and pants, are era-perfect, and with some of the men wearing top hats, the adults in this “Oliver!” seem utterly frightening, particularly as backlit by Naftal. Rodaz wanted the story told from Oliver’s point of view, and the elongated adults help do just that.

The acting and singing, mostly by Area Stage Company veterans with a few newcomers, are really fine, the varied British accents quite good.  Quiana Major’s sound design is so effective and the audience so rapt (most of the time) that you can hear a pin drop,

Walker, who weaves in and out silently through the maze of tables before the show begins, has the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she approaches Mr. Bumble with Oliver’s empty bowl and asks, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”   Her voice is lovely and light yet powerful when it needs to be, and her face radiates the goodness Oliver embodies.

Stout is simply a pistol as the Artful Dodger, joyous as she plays the banjo, just flat-out irresistible as Dodger lures the clueless Oliver into the family business.

Mazuelos is a superb Fagin, friendly yet also ruthless, not willing to cave in to Bill Sikes or anyone else. As he sings “Reviewing the Situation,” the arrangement sounds like klezmer music, underscoring his Jewish character, and Mazuelos sings it as if Fagin is just at that moment assessing his life.

John Mazuelos is the conniving Fagin in Area Stage Company’s immersive production of “Oliver!” at Miami’s Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Montoto is chilling as Bill Sikes, who takes a billy club to Nancy at will, and amusing as Beadle Bumble, very tall and very round.  He’s markedly different as each character, and his killer voice serves both.

As Nancy, Waldbauer is a striking red-haired beauty in a pale dress (not the character’s usual blood-red frock), and she makes “As Long As He Needs Me” the heartbreaking number it needs to be.

Rodriguez is a funny nag as Widow Corney, Duerr a bully as Mrs. Sowerberry and the soul of kindness as Ms. Bedwin, Hicks so very different as Nancy’s friend and confidante Bet vs. her look and manner in playing Charlotte. Surretsky makes Noah an overwhelming aging brat, and Carbonell winner Tico Chiriboga brings love and deliverance into Oliver’s life as Mr. Brownlow.

Immersive theater is the thing now, and it may not be to everyone’s taste.  Maybe you don’t want to watch Bill Sikes attacking Nancy right in front of you – literally.  Maybe constantly shifting your focus to different parts of the room (sometimes, the action may be behind you or off to the side) will start to annoy you.

Hallie Walker’s Oliver, left, meets Staci Stout’s Artful Dodger in Area Stage’s immersive “Oliver!” at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

The way Rodaz and his collaborators relate the story of “Oliver!” is unique and deeply creative as it enmeshes the audience within the story.  It will be fascinating to watch how Rodaz interprets familiar works and new plays going forward.  But “Oliver!” is his best work to date. And that’s saying something.

WHAT: Area Stage Company’s “Oliver!” 

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

WHEN  7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 25

COST:   $68 general admission, $ 36.50 student seats with promo code OLISCHOOL (student ID required for ticket pickup), $31 lap seating (day of show only at box office)

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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