In Area Stage Company’s upcoming production of Lionel Bart’s beloved, award-winning musical, “Oliver!” performers comprising the all-adult cast will stand and walk on stilts. In addition, puppets will represent most of the story’s child characters. And this mounting will immerse audience members into the action.
Welcome to another Giancarlo Rodaz-helmed production. This young, visionary live theater artist is Area Stage Company’s (ASC) artistic director.
Rodaz has built a reputation in recent years for making minimalist, yet creative, award-winning live theater that immerses audiences into the action. He’s won accolades and awards for doing so with beloved Disney shows such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” In addition, he directed an immersive production of “Annie” in the recent past.
Now, Rodaz’s attention is on the award-winning “Oliver!,” the 1960’s British musical based on Charles Dickens’ 1800s novel, “Oliver Twist or, The Parish Boy’s Progress.”
ASC will present an immersive professional production of “Oliver!” from Feb. 8-25 in the intimate Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in downtown Miami.
To say that Rodaz is excited is an understatement.
“This is a huge passion project for me,” Rodaz says enthusiastically. “'Oliver!’ has been a favorite of mine for years. I am the most excited I’ve been in a long, long time.”
Specifically, Rodaz says the story is “beautifully written.”
“This story humanizes everybody across all classes and backgrounds in an extremely fond way,” says Rodaz. “You understand where they come from and why they do what they do.”
As for the music, Rodaz says that Bart brought a “folksy, hummable energy to the show that gives it a whole separate life.”
“Oliver!” is “one of those all-time great musicals that had a huge hand in shaping modern musical theater,” says Rodaz. “Shows like ‘Les Miz’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’ owe a lot to what ‘Oliver!’ did.”
The musical, like the novel, comes to life on the streets of Victorian England during the 1800s. There, we meet the titular orphan. He is a malnourished, abused pre-teen who lives and toils in a workhouse. In fact, he was born there.
One day, he escapes to seek a better life in London. Near that city, a group of pickpockets led by the sneaky and charismatic elderly antihero, Fagin, take the titular character in, shelter him, and feed him. They also teach him to steal. Soon, the group’s henchman is out to kill little Oliver. As we witness the dark, nail-biting story hurtle toward a breathtaking climax, we cannot help but hope that the boy finds safety and a loving family to raise him.
The novel and the musical represent a sustained attack on the British Poor Laws of the 1800s. They are a complex body of law that forced poor families to labor in prison-like “workhouses.” Dickens, (1812-1870), was a prolific and popular author as well as a social critic who demonstrated immense sympathy for the poor.
While Dickens’ novel is almost unbearably dark, Bart’s 1960 stage musical, “Oliver!,” (and Bart’s 1968 award-winning musical film, whose basis are the live show and the book) are considerably lighter. For instance, a few of its songs are bright and jaunty. In fact, “many recognize “Oliver!” as a family-friendly show for community theaters to put on,” says actor Luke Surretsky. He is double-cast as the youthful bully Noah Claypool and the much older curmudgeon Dr. Grimwig.
Surretsky and Rodaz say that ASC’s production will attempt to recapture the novel’s darkness and Dickens’ “deep narrative.”
But as an audience member, you will not see the kind of stage that you are used to seeing in theaters. Instead, Rodaz and Co. will transform the entire Carnival Studio Theater into a period-accurate recreation of an old Victorian Workhouse. At times, the actors will stand or sit right next to those in the audience.
Frank Oliva, who created striking and believable immersive sets for past ASC productions, designed the set.
And what about the stilts? They will help audience members experience the story from the titular character’s perspective. With cast members towering above you at about 10-feet tall, you may feel as though you are a small, helpless child looking up at tall, scary-looking adults, according to Rodaz.
The stilts and immersive set won’t be the only things different about ASC’s production. Other productions of “Oliver!” include many child actors. They portray characters such as the workhouse children, the orphan, Claypool, Jack Dawkins (aka The Artful Dodger), and the rest of Fagin’s youthful gang of pickpockets.
Rodaz says his initial idea was to cast the production with all adults, except for the Oliver and a child actor would play him. Then, he jokingly asked adult actor and friend Hallie Walker whether she could play the title role. Without hesitation, Walker said she could portray the boy and demonstrated for Rodaz on an audition tape.
“I was completely floored by the depth she brought to the character,” says Rodaz. “She’s under 5 feet (tall), and truly comes across like a young boy. I think for what we’re doing with the show, she’s it. Her casting has transformed the role into something new and exciting. Hallie will take the character to another level. The pathos and heart she is able to pull out of that role utterly convinces you of the 11-year-old orphan portrayed in the novel.”
Walker says “Oliver!” was one of the first musicals she saw live. So, the chance to portray the titular character is a “full-circle moment.”
“This show excites me because it’s such a classic musical,” says Walker. Since many people grew up with the story, revisiting it may make them feel nostalgic, she adds.
What does Walker think about Rodaz’s vision?
“It’s cool that this production changes what people are used to,” she says. It’s a “new interpretation of something they love.”
Walker and her live castmates will share the stage with puppets. They will stand for Fagin’s gang of child pickpockets as well as the workhouse children.
“The puppets were a solution to the problem of how you portray the large cast of children in Fagin’s gang,” adds Rodaz. “Dickens’ larger-than-life characters are so inherently theatrical that they lend themselves to the larger-than-life techniques that we employ in the staging, and that includes puppetry.”
The New York City-based Phantom Limb Company’s founder, Erik Sanko, designed and crafted the puppets as well as the masks for the show.
“It was a joy to work with Phantom Limb Company,” comments Rodaz.
According to its website, the company “creates iconic stories that are built on an intersection of innovation, social change, and visual art, with a particular focus on the climate emergency and environmental injustice. Collaging puppetry, movement, multi-media storytelling and design, this unique integration of social impact and aesthetic is essential to their work.”
The live cast members will include Staci Stout, who plays The Artful Dodger. He is a lad of about 11 who befriends the Oliver and introduces him to Fagin and the rest of the gang. Dodger is also a member.
Stout may be an adult female, but she also can be believable as a young boy, Rodaz says. Further, Stout stands 4 feet 10 inches.
“She’s this little folk anti-hero rock star,” Rodaz enthuses. “You can’t fake that personality.”
ASC audiences may remember Stout as the performer portraying the title role in the company’s production of “Annie” a few years back.
Meanwhile, actor Ashlee Waldbauer portrays Nancy., the character who is a member of Fagin’s gang who becomes like a mother figure to Oliver, Dodger, and the other pickpocket children.
Waldbauer grew up watching Bart’s movie version of “Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress!” In addition, she played one of Fagin’s pickpockets when she was 8-years-old. And she portrayed Nancy as a 16-year-old high school student.
“I’m so excited to tackle this role 10 years later than when I played it in high school,” says Waldbauer. “Nancy is a light to Fagin’s boys.”
The performer says when she portrayed Nancy in high school, she didn’t fully grasp the character’s essence. Among other things, she is a motherly figure, Waldbauer says.
How do the actors feel about wearing stilts?
Tico Chiriboga, who portrays Mr. Brownlowe, one of the story’s virtuous characters, says when he and others learned that the production would include stilts, they were a bit hesitant; it was “definitely a little scary at first,” he says. However, once they started working in them, it just came naturally, the performer says.
“Two weeks ago, this cast got up on these things for the first time, and it seemed a daunting task to do a whole show in stilts,” says Rodaz. “Now, they’re singing whole numbers and doing complex scene work in them.”
Rodaz initially pitched his vision to the show’s producer, Cameron Mackintosh, and his team. Fortunately, the ASC cast and crew received the go-ahead to proceed.
“A big thank you to Cameron Mackintosh and his team for letting us do this,” says Rodaz. “Between recreating a period-accurate Victorian workhouse, having all the adults do the scenes in stilts, having children be portrayed by puppets, and doing paper craft theater, it’s been a wild rehearsal process. (I am) so excited for everyone to see this. It’s really special.”
Area Stage Company’s upcoming production of “Oliver!” will run from Feb. 8-25 in the intimate Carnival Studio Theatre in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets range in price from $68 for general admission to $31. There are additional ticket fees. Find out more at www.areastage.org or call (305) 666-2078.