Review: Area Stage Company Reaches New Heights With ‘Oliver!'

Frank Montoto plays the evil Bill Sykes. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)


Frank Montoto plays the evil Bill Sykes. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

Aaron Krause, Theater Critic

The sweet boy forced to sleep alone in a mortuary's coffin room will instantly win you over in Area Stage Company's (ASC) dark, intense, and moving production of "Oliver!"

ASC's immersive mounting of the award-winning musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' popular and wordy novel "Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress" runs through Feb. 25. The venue is the Adrienne Arsht Center's intimate Carnival Studio Theatre in downtown Miami.

But don't expect to see the type of stage that you normally encounter. Instead, ASC's visionary Artistic Director, Giancarlo Rodaz, and talented set designer Frank J. Oliva have transformed the entire Carnival Studio Theatre into a period-accurate recreation of an old Victorian Workhouse. In other words, the entire theater is the stage.

Actors could appear anywhere on or offstage in Rodaz-helmed productions, which often feature creativity and minimalism while immersing the audience in the action. Rodaz has built a reputation for such qualities through past successful, immersive productions of "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Annie."

In ASC's "Oliver!" you will be able to witness up close Hallie Walker's heart-melting facial expressions as the titular character. Also, the ruthless villain Bill Sikes (a fearsome Frank Montoto) may come within inches of you as he strives to kill the lad. Montoto is double cast as parish beadle Mr. Bumble, whom he portrays with an appropriate amount of pomposity.

Hallie Walker as Oliver. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)


Hallie Walker as Oliver. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

Doubtless, your gasps will be louder and your feeling of relief and joy at the happy ending will be greater thanks to ASC's immersive and dark approach.

Certainly, darkness is necessary in any successful production of "Oliver!" Indeed, the more ominous the action is the greater the relief we will experience at the end.

While theater companies tend to sugarcoat the show's darkness, that's not the case here. ASC's "Oliver!" is grim. But it's also lighthearted at times, mirroring life's happy and somber moments (even the novel features comic relief). And in ASC's fine production, Rodaz and Co. vividly contrast darkness from light.

While many people are familiar with "Oliver!," others may find an introduction helpful.

Dickens, (1812-1870), was a prolific and popular author as well as a social critic. He demonstrated, among other things, immense sympathy for the poor. "Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress" and the 1960 live stage musical adaptation by Lionel Bart (1930-1999) criticize the British Poor Laws of the 1800s. They forced poor families to labor in prison-like "workhouses," where they suffered from mistreatment.

Bart packed his adaptation with memorable songs, poignancy, danger, and dramatic tension. As the action hurtles toward a breathtaking climax, you warm the edge of your seat while your heart races.

In the story, we follow the titular orphan's movements from a workhouse to his apprenticeship at a funeral home, and to London's streets. There, the boy seeks his fortune.

In London, a gang of pickpockets befriends the title character and provides him with food and shelter. But the boy's ultimate goal is to find a family who will truly love him. And because he is such a likable boy, we root for him to find a permanent home, happiness, and love. Isn't that what we all desire?

Frank Montoto as Bill Sikes.  (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)


Frank Montoto as Bill Sikes. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

In ASC's non-traditional production, which required approval from the musical's producer, there are no child actors. Also, cast members playing adult characters stand and walk on stilts. This forces us to look up at these gigantic characters. They may appear to be scary, just as the tiny titular orphan must look up at scary people much bigger than him. In short, with performers on stilts, we view the story from the title character's perspective.

Most productions of "Oliver!" feature many children portraying such characters as Fagin's gang of pickpockets, the workhouse children, the title character, and Jack Dawkins (aka "The Artful Dodger").

Perhaps a reason why theater companies infrequently mount "Oliver!" is because it requires many child performers. And they can be hard to find. Rodaz's answer to this dilemma, which may work for other companies, is to have puppets stand for several of the show's child characters. In addition, adult actors portray the titular orphan and the Artful Dodger.

Nothing against child performers, but ASC's production works well without them. First off, the puppets standing for children are animated enough and believable as real people. The masks and puppets, designed by Erik Sanko of Phantom Limb, even lend a heightened theatricality to the proceedings that seems appropriate for this show.

Meanwhile, Walker stands under five feet tall, while Staci Stout, as a seemingly androgynous Dodger, is short as well.

Staci Stout appears as the Artful Dodger. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)


Staci Stout appears as the Artful Dodger. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

Walker looks and sounds convincingly like a lad, especially while wearing a hat. Her wide eyes, paired with an innocent and eager facial expression and voice, convey the purity of a choirboy. And her bright smile also endears this spirited titular orphan to us. While he's innocent and pure, he has feelings like anyone else and can grow angry, as he does when Noah Claypole (a mocking Luke Surretsky), insults the title character's late mother.

Walker's rendition of "Where is Love?" showcases the performer's sweet and pure voice. But you find yourself wishing that she would convey more sadness or a yearning for love during this song. After all, the title character sings it after he finds himself locked in a mortuary's coffin room after many months of mistreatment at the workhouse. Indeed, the shedding of a few tears would be appropriate here.

Generally, it is hard to break this youngster's strong spirit. And, as Walker embodies him, the lad's good-naturedness is so strongly entrenched in him that you couldn't convince him to steal no matter how many times you drill into his head the song "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two."

By the way, the cast delivers a playful and vibrant rendition of the aforementioned song. It comes shortly after the Artful Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin (an appropriately charismatic John Luis Mazuelos).

Mazuelos, with a bushy dark beard and longish hair, stands hunchbacked and lends Fagin a sneakiness and conspiratorial manner that serve the character. But Mazuelos's Fagin, smiling warmly at times, also calls to mind a kind male role model.

Indeed, Fagin is a complex character and Mazuelos wisely avoids turning him into a stereotype or caricature (In Dickens' novel, the author often refers to Fagin as "The Jew.")

Hallie Walker as Oliver hopes for more gruel. (Photo by Frank Oliva)


Hallie Walker as Oliver hopes for more gruel. (Photo by Frank Oliva)

Fagin's presence in the story reinforces the notion that you cannot always lump people into absolute, black and white categories of "good" and "evil." Sure, Fagin teaches the boys to steal, and neither Dickens nor Bart ask us to condone that. But Fagin also provides the youth he takes in with food and shelter. Without him, perhaps they would starve to death.

Fagin's star "pupil" is the Artful Dodger, a lad under 12 with positive and negative traits. He's more mature than his age might suggest. To her credit, Stout sounds like a lad. And she injects Dodger with a worldliness and carefree spirit that is appropriate for the character.

As Stout embodies him, the Dodger is also charming, upbeat and, well, artful. Indeed, Stout whistles and plays a guitar-like instrument to accompany her rendition of "Consider Yourself," which turns into a big ensemble number. A contagiously welcoming and vivacious spirit suffuses the song in ASC's production. It includes energetic dancing.

Songs such as "Consider Yourself" and the equally large number "Who Will Buy" provide us with more than a hint of the kind of peaceful life the titular character could lead if he finds a loving family. Of course, Sykes presents a significant obstacle to the youngster finding happiness. And in ASC's production, Montoto's rendition of the foreboding number, "My Name" may cause your blood to freeze. The song contrasts markedly with the production's lighter moments.

Speaking of fright, Mazuelos and Katie Duerr as Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, the funeral home's owners, act like characters from a horror movie, complete with an evil-sounding laugh, wide, dark, scary eyes and what resemble sharp, pointy fingers.

John Mazuelos plays the conniving Fagin, who possesses good and bad qualities.  (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)


John Mazuelos plays the conniving Fagin, who possesses good and bad qualities. (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

At first, one may question the decision to present the Sowerberry couple in this manner. After all, these people may be stingy and slimy, but they are not monsters. And their creepiness seems inconsistent with a sign for their business included in this production. It promises funerals with "reverence."

On the other hand, perhaps to the titular character, they are creepy-looking strangers. And since Rodaz strives to present ASC's production from the titular orphan's perspective, the creepiness makes sense.

Ashlee Waldbauer, who is no stranger to the role of Nancy, triumphs as this well-meaning woman. While she is part of Fagin's gang (and Sikes' abused girlfriend), deep down she is a mother figure to Oliver and Fagin's gang of pickpockets.

In at least one scene, Nancy wears a light-colored outfit with a black sweater or shawl wrapped around her. The symbolism is clear – at heart, Nancy is a good-hearted woman, yet evil, in the form of Sykes and Fagin, clings to her.

With a radiant smile and a charming personality, Waldbauer gives us a winning Nancy. And, to her credit, she never comes across as a submissive victim duiring the song "As Long as He Needs Me." Instead, Waldbauer's rendition suggests an emotionally-strong woman with convictions.

Tico Chiriboga also performs well, lending the kind Mr. Brownlow a dignified air.

The performers sing Bart's varied and memorable score with strong backing from a live band, under music director Michael Day's direction. It includes a piano, reeds, and violin.

Behind the scenes, Oliva's work as scenic designer is noticeable as soon as you walk into the theater. Masked performers lead you to the seating areas. The walls are weathered brick, and a sign at the front of the room reads "God is Just."

Oliver (Hallie Walker) meets the Artful Dodger (Staci Stout). (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)


Oliver (Hallie Walker) meets the Artful Dodger (Staci Stout). (Photo by Giancarlo Rodaz)

Audience members sit on benches at wooden tables adorned with flickering faux candles. The place might suggest a church, with light filtering in through the windows. (Joe Naftal designed the sometimes-soft, sometimes-bright lighting, depending on the desired mood).

The tables turn into long, narrow playing spaces upon which the performers sometimes stand. Under Rodaz's sensitive direction, the actors alternate between standing on the tables and on the ground, ensuring variety.

The performers, wearing Sofia Ortega's character appropriate period costumes (black for evil, light-colored for virtuous), mostly deliver strong performances. At times, the actors start speaking or singing before lighting illuminates them. This is significant, because we want to clearly see their facial expressions in addition to hearing them.

Indeed, we want to see and hear everything in this production. It further establishes Rodaz as an inventive live theater artist. He simply thinks differently than many other directors. The result is often creatively-mounted productions. They find us, like the titular character in "Oliver!", wanting some more.

Area Stage Company's production of "Oliver!" runs through Feb. 25 in the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami. Showtimes are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $68 for general admission; $36.50 for student seats with the promo code OLISCHOOL (student ID required for ticket pick up); $31 for lap seating (day of show only at box office). For information or tickets, call (305) 949-6722 or

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