Consider Yourself...Washed Up

I recently phoned a publicist friend of mine who moved here from Los Angeles about the same time I moved from New York -- in 1989 -- and told her I was reviewing Lionel Bart's zippy 1960s musical Oliver! at the Actors' Playhouse. Her immediate reaction was: "What? I haven't seen that show since it was done by my high school. There's so much better stuff written recently."

I sought to defend the penchant for revivals here. First, I tried to explain the harsh facts of regional theater, such as how a huge number of old revivals are chosen over fresh work because local producers fear taking risks and prefer to stick with "evergreens." I contended that the audience is supposedly best lured into their seats by products they can recognize by name and score.

But while justifying this lack of imagination around town, an odd thing happened. I realized that I'd forgotten my own artistic beliefs, that my friend was right and I was wrong. Oliver! and old Neil Simon comedies and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and on and on ad nauseam, shouldn't dominate this local scene anymore A no matter how well-staged. As one actress recently commented to me about the seventh coming of Cats as part of the season's road shows: "It's time to put those kitties to sleep."

Local producers must face certain facts:
1. The population of Dade County now includes some of the youngest, hippest people in the country, many of them transplants from Europe, New York, and Los Angeles.

2. These audiences crave innovation and surprise; they prefer to leave the past in the past and focus on the future.

3. While local theater owners complain of dwindling sales, Naya Spring Water does very nicely with its highly avant-garde nights of performance art in the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road. Last year's event starring Everrett Quinton from the great Charles Ludlam's Theater of the Ridiculous was packed to the rafters. Tickets for such shows consistently sell out, as do the cutting- edge events produced by the Miami Light Project.

Wake up. Is anyone listening out there?
To make matters seem worse, I recently received the annual season preview issue of American Theatre magazine, profiling the 1993-94 production schedules of regional theaters from coast to coast. Numerous locales are featuring mainly new and interesting dramatic works rather than a hammy host of retreads, including: Birmingham, Alabama; Douglas, Alaska; Honolulu, Hawaii; Whitesburg, Kentucky; Portland, Maine; Detroit, Michigan; Omaha, Nebraska; New Brunswick, New Jersey; and Knoxville, Tennessee. Believe me, I could go on.

Most people readily acknowledge that New York, Los Angeles, New Haven, Louisville, Chicago, and Minneapolis possess a more mature theatrical consciousness than Miami, but something's wrong when we're being vastly outclassed by Knoxville, Omaha, and Honolulu. Obviously, many regional theater communities do take risks by producing new works and more obscure contemporary shows. In Dade County specifically, such experiments are attempted too seldom and too often crop up in theaters such as AREA stage or the Miami Actor's Studio, with fewer than 50 seats.

Which doesn't mean that Oliver!, or a show like it, is bad. Just that it's time to march on down a new artistic road.

In fact, as a musical spectacle, the Actors' Playhouse Oliver! definitely entertains. The huge cast of adults and children have been admirably directed by David Arisco, and certain cast members are brilliant. Hearing a score such as this one, with so many classic songs, makes you remember what's missing from newer offerings such as Will Rogers Follies or Aspects of Love. Musical standards like "Consider Yourself," "As Long As He Needs Me," "Where Is Love?" "Who Will Buy?" and "It's a Fine Life," all emerged from this show. Take that, Lloyd Webber! Lionel Bart managed to write the lyrics, the story line, and the music for Oliver!, still scoring with hit after hit.

The Playhouse, now totally rebuilt after its destruction by Hurricane Andrew, must be praised for mounting such a challenging, lavish production, with exquisite period costumes by Chuck Batchelor of Costume World and a huge, inventive set design by Jeff Quinn. The cast includes dozens of local kids taught to sing in key and dance with some semblance of choreography.

For anyone who doesn't know it yet, Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, traces the often sad tale of a workhouse orphan who falls unwittingly in league with a gang of juvenile thieves run by the avaricious Fagin. Since Dickens specialized in writing colorful, eccentric characters, the show contains a host of excellent roles to play, many of which are filled most ably.

The performances by Harvey Phillips as a delightfully mischievous Fagin and William Neal as an adorably wicked Artful Dodger (Fagin's adolescent protege), couldn't be more polished or amusing. And Meghan Colleen Moroney, a newcomer to South Florida, sings and acts with the type of first-rate talent the area sorely needs. Moroney brings so much energy to the role of Nancy, the harlot with the heart of gold, that I can't wait to see her on local stages again.

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