On the negative side, the show stars ten-year-old Manuel E. Pasquel as Oliver, who tries very hard to sing and dance and act. Although he gets the steps and most of the songs right, he's missing one small ingredient -- talent. This child virtually embodies the hard-working performer who lacks any hint of charisma. Since Oliver is the lead character, designed to evoke all the sympathy, and since Pasquel cannot register one effective emotion on a stage, the emotional impact of the show suffers. Equally dismal is Steven Harad's Bill Sykes, a role meant to exude evil. Sykes is the least charming member of Fagin's gang; a hardened sociopath, he commits the foul murder at the end of the show. But Harad makes him about as frightening as a chubby Matthew Broderick. Furthermore, he doesn't understand the tone of musical theater. Although the characters must perform in an almost comically overblown tone, the trick is to make this trait appear natural. Harad instead awkwardly forces out his character's black-hearted glee.
Still, Moroney and Phillips in the lead roles are so professional and electric it sometimes becomes possible to swat little Pasquel and Harad to the side of your mind. It all makes for a rather pleasant evening.
So what's the beef? Simply that it's time to grow up and spread out, Dade County. Oliver! was once a fine product, but unless you're going to revive it with a multiracial and ethnic cast, making those social ills explored by Dickens apropos to current social problems, why bring it back? The music's good, but the story meanders. More to the point, many interesting plays and musicals have emerged in the last ten years that people haven't seen in these parts. The Actors' Playhouse appeared to understand this when they produced their last, very excellent contemporary production A Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Mr. Arisco's outstanding directorial skills are better utilized on challenging shows such as that one, rather than on old hard candies like Oliver!.
While those who buy tickets probably won't be disappointed, many of the current residents of Dade County will never purchase a seat because the show is Oliver! Believe me, to those of us coming here from other parts of the country, has-been plays and musicals remind us of something we were forced to read by our high school English teachers A or, worse yet, watch in drafty auditoriums. Unless the revival uncovers a new aspect of an old work, theater owners should do some in-depth homework and uncover fine works written for contemporary audiences. I'm willing to bet all of Fagin's jewels that with careful selection, sound publicity, and a good production, audiences will enthusiastically support this more professional approach to theater.
Speaking of the Actors' Playhouse, their thrilling summer production of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe has been moved, intact, to the Vinnette Carroll Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, a very lovely but sadly under-utilized space. (The Actors' Playhouse is paying to rent the venue for an ongoing run.) Donna Kimball once again stars in a production directed by David Arisco, and written by Jane Wagner for Lily Tomlin. I didn't think anyone could perform this masterful one-woman commentary on life and relationships any better than Tomlin, but Kimball often outshines the original. Don't miss this one, please!