So I saw “Oliver!” this weekend at Actor’s Playhouse in Coral Gables. Running through Dec. 26, it’s a fine production by the standards of many theaters: The period costumes, three-dimensional set design and enormous 56-member ensemble cast are commendable. But this production of the beloved Tony winner fails to live up to its own great expectations, never reaching the emotional heights of the theaterâ€™s other musical spectaculars of the past two years, “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” Actor’s Playhouse’s staging is effective in spurts but is often so cartoonified – so aimed at pleasing the small ones in the audience – that the Dickensian darkness is all but lost. The tone is wrong about half the time, and many of the actors, young and old, struggle with their Cockney accents.
Still, admirers of the show will likely appreciate the theater’s attempt. What I found completely indefensible about the show happened after the curtain fell, as the actors encored and the audience bravoed. Actor Gary Marachek, who played Fagin in the production, used the moment of genuine actor-audience kinship to beg for money. He said that despite holiday spending and the tough economic times and, the children’s theater program at Actor’s Playhouse is a nonprofit organization, and it needs our support. Any amount will suffice, and to encourage our wallet-emptying efforts – and play on our guilt – the theater sent the children’s ensemble out in the lobby, still dressed in full costume as filthy, poverty-stricken waifs, to hold out hats and grovel for cash instead of more gruel.
Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong? Judging by the people around me, who started rustling in their purses and wallets for money before Maracheck completed his pitch, I’m probably in the minority. But there are proper places to beg for donations, such as inside the playbill, on the theater’s website and of course in designated fundraisers. Exploiting adorable tykes to take more of audience members’ money after they just spent nearly $50 a piece on tickets is not one of these appropriate places. It is shameful, opportunistic and insulting, and it devalues the show in which the actors just performed. Actor’s Playhouse is pulling a tacky stunt on us, pure and simple. If I had cash to spare and thought about donating to the theater, I can assure you that all contributions would cease indefinitely.