Actors’ Playhouse has built its award-winning reputation with successful productions of all kinds of shows, but the bedrock of that success is the large-scale musical Oliver!, the holiday show that has just opened at the Miracle Theatre, is one of those.
Just how big is Oliver!? The new production features 22 adult actors and two separate 18-actor kid casts that alternate performances. In recessionary times or boom times, a show with 40 actors onstage is a huge undertaking for any regional theater.
Still, 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.
Many of the musical numbers from Bart’s familiar score come off as stand-alone set pieces rather than necessary, plot-driving elements. The eight-member orchestra sounds thin when pitted against all that vocal firepower, and the choreography looks like a twirling exercise in traffic management. Bart’s script has characters appear then vanish. Watching the frothy, choppy Oliver! makes you long for the dramatic coherence of Les Misérables.
If big, traditional musicals are your thing, the intermittent pleasures of Oliver! may be reason enough to head on over to Coral Gables. But if 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.