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.

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.

Stage Notes
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!

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