Area Stage Presents an Electrifying Take on an Old Classic: Oliver!

The denizens of London’s downtrodden life enjoy a joyous moment inn Area Stage Company’s Oliver!

By Mariah Reed

Something truly remarkable is taking place at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theatre. Area Stage Company, by special arrangement with producer Cameron Mackintosh, is presenting a sensational immersive production of the beloved Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical, Oliver!

Reimagined by director Giancarlo Rodaz, this production transforms the theatrical venue into a dreary and dark depiction of Victorian England that is experienced with all the senses. As the audience walks through the entrance of the theatre, they find themselves quite literally in the dark, with creepy, masked figures transporting them through time and space to a seat along one of several work benches in a gloomy, cavernous, simulated Victorian workhouse.

Faint, haunting piano music plays alongside a rumbling of mysterious mechanical noises, while a smoky haze reminiscent of Victorian London’s industrial sooty emissions envelops one and all.  Long worktables stretch before seating and an enormous sign reminds us that “God is Good,” a nod to the firm hold the church had on daily life in those times.

Brick walls surround the area with windows placed throughout that emit an eerie glow and occasional shadows.  The impression is one of heaviness, a stifling world order that dictates one’s station and trajectory in life.  Indeed, the ambiance and tragic circumstances that befall characters in this production reinforce the concept of inevitability that was pervasive during a time when the circumstances of one’s birth negated any possibility of upward mobility or social advancement.

The Area Stage presentation begins with eye-popping effects and quite literally larger-than-life characters charging into the playing area in a remarkable way that must be experienced first-hand.

Staci Stout as the Artful Dodger

The arresting effects are enhanced as the play is essentially performed “in the round,” with audience members surrounding the action.  Scenic Designer Frank J. Oliva’s workhouse takes up the entire theatre, with playing areas extended into the audience. This allows director Rodaz (newly appointed full artistic director of the company) to heighten the immersive aspect of the show by having performers act, sing, and dance on the long tables situated before audience members, who are often lit as brightly as the actors themselves.  This is the best of transformative “Black Box” theatre, and the approach makes attendees feel as though they are a part of the action.  We become participants in the story, and vicariously join Oliver and company for the mysterious, dark, foreboding, and sometimes joyous moments that occur.  A character swilling a tankard of ale squats on a table before a delighted audience member, drunkenly addressing them as though they are compatriots at a local tavern.

Based on Charles Dicken’s classic novel and Lionel Bart’s interpretation, the story begins in a bleak Victorian workhouse for children, where the destitute orphans of England were forced to work for meager bits of food and shelter.  Young Oliver has lived here since his mother died in childbirth, and after failing a brief apprenticeship with the local undertaker, he escapes to London in search of love and family.  There he is recruited by the elderly Fagin, leader of a team of juvenile pickpockets and petty thieves.  Turns out, Oliver isn’t a very good thief, and he is arrested tout suite.  An altruistic, wealthy gentleman agrees to shelter Oliver, but Fagin convinces his crew to kidnap the missing boy for fear he will expose him and his nefarious activities.  What happens next forces each character to undergo serious self-reflection and choose either redemption or damnation.

Remarkably, the story plays out with only 10 actors.  How to represent an epic tale of this magnitude with so few performers?  Why, enlist the help of adept puppeteers and a cast of talented actors who can convincingly portray multiple characters while undertaking lightning-fast costume changes.  Under the skilled direction of Erik Sanko, the puppet handlers craftily bob and weave about, breathing life into wooden depictions of street urchins.

Hallie Walker as Oliver

Hallie Walker, as Oliver, is the picture of pure innocence and pluck as she escapes dire circumstances time and again while earnestly seeking love and family.  John Luis Mazuelos’ Fagin is the perfect balance of charm and desperation, and Ashlee Waldbauer as Nancy is a woman hell-bent on survival, doing what she must though her heart aches for something more.  Frank Montoto, as the sinister Bill Sikes, is a man incapable of salvation.  While other characters evolve and show complexity as they confront their lot in life, Sikes never strays from his brutish and animalistic desires.  Staci Stout, as Fagin’s teenage aide the Artful Dodger, is astonishing.  She fully captures the spirit of this iconic character with her nimble physicality, multi-layered acting choices, and exquisite singing voice.

A strong ensemble, expert musicians, creative staging, exceptional singing and the mesmerizing addition of puppetry make for a night of great fun, even in such dreary environments.  Unfortunately, the inevitable challenges of theater in the round affected certain technical elements of the show.  Lighting is most affected, with several dramatic moments unfolding in the dark or shadow.  When staging works “in the round,” it is critical to keep actors moving so that events are constantly visible from one angle or another.  At times, key moments are created with characters encircling the scene tightly so that it is difficult to make out what is happening.  Finally, musicians sometimes overpower quieter singing moments which makes it challenging for performers to apply intimate dynamics to musical interpretation.

But these are small annoyances, and this is an exhilarating presentation that should not be missed.  To witness unforgettable theater creatively staged with gifted artists that transport one to a world of adventure, check out Area Stage’s clever reimagining of Oliver!

Mariah Reed is an Equity actress, produced playwright and tenured theater professor.

Oliver! plays through Feb. 25 from Area Stage Theatre presented in the Carnival Studio in the Adrienne Arsht Center Carnival Studio Theatre; 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 7 pm; Sundays at 1 p.m. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes. Tickets  $31-68. Call (305) 949-6722


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