There are plenty of good reasons to see David Arisco's production of Oliver! at Actor's Playhouse, the most obvious being that the play finds the director returning to his natural habitat — the classic, conservative musical — and kicking all kinds of ass. Arisco is a wizard with a show like Oliver!, allowing each actor on his over-stuffed stage plenty of room to breathe, individuate, steal scenes, and chew scenery at will. The characters pop; the scenes pop; everything is as vibrant as Dickens's London underworld allows. It's hard to believe Oliver! turned 50 this year. Some overworn songwriting tropes aside, Arisco's imagining of Lionel Bart's musical could have been conceived, written, and premiered last week.
First and weirdest among this production's many charms is Tyler Flanzer, the shockingly talented 12-year-old playing the Artful Dodger on alternating nights. (Kyle Christensen takes the other nights, and I hear he's good, too.) The Artful Dodger, Jack Lawson, is an adolescent master pickpocket in the employ of an elderly, miserly fence named Fagin. Oliver is fresh from an aborted apprenticeship to an undertaker, to whom he was sold after an unceremonious discharge from the poor house, where he famously requested his extra ration of gruel (or "grew-EL," as the song has it.). He bumps into the Dodger on the street, and the two quickly strike up a friendship.
The Oliver character is a simple one. He is younger and infinitely more naïve than the Dodger, and the role demands only that the actor playing him — either Sammy Schechter or Cruz M. Santiago, depending on the night — sing and smile, happy for company.
By Lionel Bart. Directed by David Arisco.Through December 26 at Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293; actorsplayhouse.org.
The Dodger role is trickier. He wants Oliver's friendship, and sees in him an easy, manipulable accomplice. The mix of puppyish affection and cynicism isn't easy to pull off, but Flanzer hits it perfectly — far better than Jack Wild, who played the Dodger like a cherub in the 1968 musical adaptation. When the Dodger is terrified that Oliver will be beaten to death by the villainous Bill Sykes (Shane R. Tanner, expressing malice by grinding his sonorous bass to gravel), Flanzer stands amid the gaggle of Fagin's boys with eyes like moons. His fingers twitch nervously, apparently unconsciously — like your own fingers might, if you were scared out of your wits and fingers were the farthest things from your mind. Flanzer's characterization is full of small, seemingly thoughtless details. It's a subtle, adult performance. I hope the kid has an agent.
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Oliver! is a huge show, featuring 52 actors, including two kids' ensembles. There are obvious challenges to sticking 30 or more actors on a stage at once, especially when some of those actors are children, but the Playhouse production artfully dodges most of them. (A rare quibble: Chrissi Ardito's choreography is sometimes perfunctory, and at its busy worst resembles air traffic control, concerned less with whizz-bang visuals than with avoiding collisions between the smaller players.)
The greatest danger is that one will not find sufficient talent to round out the show's leads, which isn't a problem here. Thanks to Ariscos's early and persuasive casting (and, perhaps, to a deepening paucity of big-budget musicals in regional theater), Oliver! is a veritable who's-who of South Florida's actorly who's-who's. Elizabeth Dimon and Ken Clement, as Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble, have good, naughty fun singing "I Shall Scream." Mark A. Harmon and Maribeth Graham, as undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowberry, sing and dance like fantasian skeletons. Amy Miller Brennan busts a lung as the busty, tragically co-dependent Nancy. And Gary Marachek, as Fagin, dances away with the show.
A word about Fagin. He is not the protagonist of Oliver Twist, the novel. In Dickens's story, he is a cross between villain and tragic clown. But his various treatments over the decades conspired to push him ever-closer to the spotlight, until, in Oliver!, he serves as the show's moral center. (He'd be the protagonist outright, if only he showed up a few scenes earlier.) Marachek, with his dancer's instincts and spindly limbs, can make any throwaway sentence into a punchline; the audience erupts with the merest curl of a finger or tremble of a wrist. (Helpless belly-laughs accompanied his virtuosic "Reviewing The Situation" last Saturday, and I thought for a moment somebody would have to stop the show.) But in Oliver! his antics render unexpected pathos, too. Here, he dramatizes the show's deepest, inchoate struggle — between the universal desire to honestly make good in an open society, and the impulse to take what you can and stash it away in the dark. We'd all rather do the former, and are tempted to do the latter; the scars of that conflict live in Marachek's forced glee and sad eyes. A century ago, Fagin was a caricature of miserly Jewishness. In Marachek's hands, he's merely a guy — not unlike Oliver, but grown up all wrong.
By the way: I ought to mention Oliver! isn't the only Dickensian yarn currently featured on Actor's Playhouse's big stage. A Christmas Carol, Dickens's moral parable about generosity, spooks, and moldy cheese, runs through December 20. This, too, is a musical, with a new book and tunes by Nina Felice and Eric Maulding. The kids work alongside Oscar Cheda, the gruff-voiced dynamo who was, until recently, traveling the country with the Broadway tour of In The Heights. He plays the role of Scrooge. A great many theater people (this one included) first fell in love with the medium after a holiday encounter with an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. If you've got a family and your brood has yet to catch the bug, why not bring them along?