Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Actors' Playhouse: Oliver! (5 reviews)

The Actors' Playhouse production of the musical Oliver! opened on November 19, 2010, after previews on November 17 and 18.
One of the most beloved musicals of all time, Oliver! vividly brings to life Charles Dickens' timeless characters with its ever-popular story of the boy who asked for more. With a cast and orchestra of over 50, the sensational score is full of Lionel Bart's irresistible songs including Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, You've Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two, I'd Do Anything, Oom Pah Pah, As Long As He Needs Me and many more. The winner of two Tony Awards, Oliver! has played in 22 languages worldwide and is sure to be a holiday treat for the whole family.
Daivd Arisco directed a cast that included Cruz Santiago, Sammy Schecter, Tyler Flanzer, Kyle Christensen, Amy Miller Brennan, Shane Tanner, Gary Marachek, Ken Clement, and Elizabeth Dimon.

Brandon K. Thorp reviewed for the Miami New Times:
There are plenty of good reasons to see David Arisco's production of Oliver! at Actor's Playhouse, the most obvious being that the play finds the director returning to his natural habitat — the classic, conservative musical — and kicking all kinds of ass. Arisco is a wizard with a show like Oliver!, allowing each actor on his over-stuffed stage plenty of room to breathe, individuate, steal scenes, and chew scenery at will. The characters pop; the scenes pop; everything is as vibrant as Dickens's London underworld allows...
...among this production's many charms is Tyler Flanzer, the shockingly talented 12-year-old playing the Artful Dodger on alternating nights. (Kyle Christensen takes the other nights, and I hear he's good, too.)...Flanzer's characterization is full of small, seemingly thoughtless details. It's a subtle, adult performance. I hope the kid has an agent.
Thanks to Ariscos's early and persuasive casting... Oliver! is a veritable who's-who of South Florida's actorly who's-who's. Elizabeth Dimon and Ken Clement, as Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble, have good, naughty fun singing "I Shall Scream." Mark A. Harmon and Maribeth Graham, as undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowberry, sing and dance like fantasian skeletons. Amy Miller Brennan busts a lung as the busty, tragically co-dependent Nancy. And Gary Marachek, as Fagin, dances away with the show.
John Lariviere reviewed for Talkin' Broadway:
Cruz M. Santiago (Oliver) has the singing voice of an angel and the polished musicianship of an adult. Each of his songs are performed strongly enough to stand on their own, even outside the context of the show... his attention to finding the most of the meaning of each song is remarkable. Ken Clement (Mr. Bumble) is never better than when perfectly paired with Elizabeth Dimon (Widow Corney). They are delightful character actors. Gary Marachek's performance as Fagin bears much similarity to his previous Actors' Playhouse performance as Thenardier in Les Miserables. The difference is that his Thenardier is overtly foul and sexual, while his Fagin is non-specifically creepy. The fact that we cannot predict his reactions and his motivation makes the possibilities vastly more interesting. His "Reviewing The Situation" clearly demonstrates how much he enjoys playing these characters we love to hate.
Shane R. Tannner is menacing as Bill Sikes. His normally resonant baritone sound is admirably disguised with a harsh, growl of a voice that evokes appropriate fear.
Amy Miller Brennan (Nancy) sings the song "As Long As He Needs Me" beautifully, but is in need of staging help. The script regrettably does little to make that moment in the show logical or organic... Standing center stage in a spotlight makes the song feel even more disconnected. It comes off like a number in a cabaret act, and frankly, her talented vocals deserve more thought to staging.
...this production of Oliver! is worth seeing for its wonderful character actor moments and well sung renditions of familiar songs such as "Where Is Love", "Consider Yourself", "I'd Do Anything", "Oom-Pah-Pah" and "Food Glorious Food."
Roger Martin reviewed for Miami ArtZine:
...the sixteen Workhouse Boys and “Food, Glorious Food” have opened the show. Ken Clement and Elizabeth Dimon as Mr Bumble and Widow Corney follow with “Oliver,” “I Shall Scream” and “Boy For Sale,” Just great. Then there's “That's Your Funeral” with Mark A. Harmon and Maribeth Graham. Delightful. And we're all set for a wonderful evening of Lionel Bart's classic of 1850's London.

But somewhere along the way, towards the end of the first act, when we're in the Thieves Kitchen, things start to go flat. The veteran Gary Marachak is the star of the show as Fagin and when he speaks his first lines to Oliver my first thought is “My God, I didn't know Fagin was a paedophile.” Marachak is an interesting actor, too interesting at times. You want to follow all his little tricks and perhaps it's these tricks that slow things down.

But he did have dirty teeth. The only one of the 1850s slum dwelling thieves, prostitutes and ragamuffins who didn't have bright, shiny choppers and in the case of the women, all but Jeni Hacker had impeccable modern day make-up. A small thing, perhaps, but watching the impressive Shane Tanner as grimy Bill Sykes as he sang “My Name” and brutalized all in sight, I fell in love with his beautiful white teeth.
Big musicals are the thing with Actors' Playhouse. They do them often and they do them well. Huge casts, great sets and costumes, wonderful singers and dancers, live music are the stuff of this theatre. And Oliver! is no exception. But when there's no singing or dancing the show loses its drive, and that's a shame, for otherwise there's a lot of pleasure in this piece.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
...just as the company did with its impressive versions of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, Actors' has thrown its considerable creative resources at Oliver!, trying to make Lionel Bart's old-fashioned 1960 musical sparkle anew.

At times, director David Arisco, his collaborators and a talented cast turn Bart's take on Charles Dickens' 1838 novel Oliver Twist into just that: a multifacted gem.
Cruz Santiago, one of the two boys playing the orphaned Oliver Twist (the other is Sammy Schechter), has an exquisite, pure, high voice, and his Where Is Love? would melt the hardest heart. Likewise, Amy Miller Brennan beautifully explores the complex, contradictory emotions of As Long as He Needs Me, Nancy's declaration of loyalty to her abusive lover Bill Sikes (Shane R. Tanner).
You would expect multiple-Carbonell-Award-winner Gary Marachek to do a bang-up comic job with Fagin's Reviewing the Situation, and he does (though the low, growling speaking style he uses too often turns his dialogue into barely comprehensible mush). And as Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, Ken Clement and Elizabeth Dimon make grand comic hay of I Shall Scream.
Even so, flaws in the show itself and in a production that feels bloated keep Oliver! from reaching the level of excellence Actors' achieved with its Les Miz... f you've seen the best work at Actors', if you appreciate the way musicals have evolved since 1960, you may feel more like another Dickens character. For every ``bravo'' this cast earns, there's a ``bah, humbug'' right behind it.
Bill Hirschman wrote for South Florida Theater Review:
The Actors’ Playhouse production of Oliver! has most of the right individual elements and some moments worked moderately well. If all you want is a scrapbook of beloved tunes delivered with enough talent to make you recall better productions, you’ll be satisfied. But this version was never as moving or as transporting as it should have been.
With a few exceptions, the casting is marvelous. Veteran Gary Marachek slips into the role of the lovable rogue Fagin as smoothly as he dons his ragtag coat because it is one of the few roles in musical theater where a carefully calibrated amount of skilled mugging and scenery-chewing is encouraged. Marachek, with his expressive eyes, arching eyebrows and leering grin, is proven royalty in that country. What’s missing here is the pathos that engenders sympathy when events turn against him.
Equally skilled are Ken Clement and Elizabeth Dimon as the beadle and the widow who run the workhouse. In addition to being able singers, these pros have fine-tuned comedy chops...
Amy Miller Brennan brings a lovely voice and an earthy beauty to the  soiled dove, Nancy. The musical director unfortunately allowed her to freely reinterpret the classic As Long As He Needs Me in a way that interrupted the crucial flow of this straight-ahead power ballad.
Shane R. Tanner, who like Clement has played his role before, was such a convincing bully as Bill Sikes that he’ll likely cause a few nightmares among the younger audience members.

On opening night, Oliver was played by Cruz M. Santiago, a sweet-looking boy with a smooth angelic voice. Kyle Christensen’s Artful Dodger was cute but needs to summon up more energy and animation.
The intangible problems start with the tone. There was no sense of poor little Oliver being thrust in a menacing, ever-darkening underworld, and therefore, no sense of exultant relief when Oliver is rescued.
There’s also the pacing. The opening depends on a rousing rendition of Food Glorious Food. But in a crippling tradeoff, the song has been slowed down so that the orphans can navigate the difficult words. Yet, the final ten minutes of the show is rushed through with crucial plot resolutions smashed together like a pileup on I-95.
But the real problem is the lack of discernible emotional transitions between the spoken scenes and songs, or even between two songs.
Oliver! plays at Actors Playhouse through December 26, 2010.

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