There’s no wonder why Oliver sold out at Carrollwood Cultural Center. Celebrating their 10th anniversary and revisiting the first show that debuted at the center with two of the original actors – Terry Larosa and Kimberly Rostas, MAS Theatre’s Oliver was spectacular entertainment.
Under the exceptional direction of Tracy Stemm-Crews, musical direction by Mary Jo Hahn, choreography talents of Ashley Ryan Lord and Aaron Washington, lighting by Keith Eisenstadt, and costumes by Heather Cleveland, there wasn’t a moment that went too fast, an actor that needed to pick up speed, a set change that took you away from the story, choreography that didn’t have perfect pace. Everything worked in this high-energy production – especially the cast using the balcony during the beautiful Who Will Buy and by creating an immersive experience for the audience by going up and down the aisles.
Having never seen a stage or film version of Oliver, I didn’t realize how many songs I knew, but didn’t know from where.
On a multi-leveled set designed by Richard Haerther and Tracy, this was definitely not a happy musical. The beauty of the show is how an unsavory dark theme of child neglect, child trafficking and slavery, thievery and murder became an upbeat, toe-tapping story with characters with meat to their roles. With those precious kids- who enchanted you from the moment they created magic with their wooden food bowls rose in unison in the air – led masterfully by Miles King as Oliver in that evening’s performance – to the littlest adorable pickpocket Carter Bronson and the incredible adult ensemble, this was a professional theatre production.
Twelve-year-old Miles was completely believable as the orphan who wanted to be part of a family. He broke your heart when he sang Where Is Love. Miles was able to make the audience truly feel for Oliver and root for him when his circumstances had the opportunity to change for the better.
Depending on his locale – the workhouse or widow Corney’s (Leanne Ferguson) home – Mr. Bumble (Tom Bronson) was unnerving with the children and endearing with the widow. Though with #metoo movement in the recent news, I couldn’t help feeling that Leanne and Tom’s humorous performance of I Shall Scream in modern times would have a major sexual harassment vibe.
After daring to ask for more gruel, the orphan Oliver was sold into bondage by Mr. Bumble to be a mistreated apprentice to a cruel undertaker and his wife. Neil Bleiweiss and Kimberly exuded the utmost creepiness as the neglectful pair.
The large cast of children, starving paupers in the workhouse and pickpockets in Fagin’s den, worked well as a large ensemble and Artful Dodger (Rhett Ricardo) provided cheeky dialog with perfect comedic timing.
Craig Hartfield gave heart to Fagin, the leader of the child pickpocketing ring. I expected his to be as cruel a role as Tom’s in the workhouse, but I actually felt that Craig brought a fatherly feeling to the role. One of the funniest parts in Fagin’s den was his comment to Oliver, “All out of cocoa, have a spot of gin.” Though I realize he used children to steal from the rich, Craig made him feel more like a victim of his circumstances and brought humor to Fagin when he donned pearls and a tiara while Oliver lie sleeping.
Ryan Farnworth was sinister perfection as the villain Bill Sykes. When he sang My Name, he was truly menacing.
Karli Gundersen was enthralling as the likable villain/heroine torn between her life in the London underbelly, her enabling relationship with Bill and a desire to do the right thing which led to her demise at his hand. From the first long note of It’s a Fine Life and the heart-wrenching As Long as Needs Me, Karli’s vocals brought goosebumps.
Having truly expected Oliver to be accidently shot by the Bobbies or Bill, I was thoroughly pleased when he was returned to his rightful place with his grandfather.
With today’s hot topics inserted subtly and not-so-subtly into the musical, it’s incredible to think though Charles Dicken’s book was written almost two hundred years ago, these issues are still relevant today. With a standing ovation before the full cast was even on stage, this was definitely an evening well-spent.