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Theater Review: Oliver!

Theater lovers in Lahaina know what Theatre Theatre is. They know it’s a summer theater camp that reaches out to kids in the West Maui community. They know Theatre Theatre has  been around since 1992 and performs annual  summer shows at the Lahaina Gateway center. They know how good the productions are- indeed, Theatre Theatre just won Best Live Theatre in MauiTime Weekly, a vote tallied from local readers,  beating out Maui Onstage and MAPA. If you live in Lahaina, you probably know all of this. However, if you live elsewhere on Maui and think of Lahaina as being “far away,” you may not be aware of the caliber of work Theatre Theatre does every year.

Case in point- the Kristi Scott-directed “Oliver!,” the classic Lionel Bart musical that is performed in a manner you definitely haven’t seen before. Scott’s production, full of robust performances and buoyant singing, is presented in the spacious makeshift theater (right next to Island Creamery in Lahaina Gateway and, for out-of-towners, in the strip mall across the street from the Lahaina Cannery).

While the story is as you remember it, the presentation is unique. Bart’s musical portrays the sad life of Oliver Twist, an orphan who is torn between the possibility of a good life and a dangerous existence living off the street with youthful companions. The songs and characters are entirely intact, but Scott has decided not to do the expected, thicker-than-mush cockney accents. More intriguingly, its set in a near future, with hints of a post-nuclear fallout. The striking costumes by Mary Beth Chin and Rebecca Tinkler combine old Victorian garb, steam punk and even a few outfits seemingly lifted from “A Clockwork Orange.” The look of the production is very cool and aided by Ricky Jones’ lighting design (note how the production turns blood red at the appearance of the villainous Bill Sykes).

The performers are largely 4th graders, around nine years old (though I’m told one of the actresses is 17). There are 56 kids in the cast and they really give it their all. Dozens of performances caught my eye, so here are some of the standouts: Shelsea Wurts does a fine job in the title role and does an affecting rendition of “Where is Love?.” Landon Long is excellent as Mr. Bumble, Anthony Montoya is strikingly good as Dr. Grimwig and having Fagin played by a young woman, particularly a very good Sydney McCarney,  was an inspired choice. McCarney’s inspired tongue twisting on “You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two” is especially impressive (I never before considered how hard that song is to perform).  Gianna Bauchman is top notch as the artful Dodger and Rory Delaney is excellent as the tragic Nancy. It’s especially impressive when you consider the cast only began rehearsing on June 13th, only five weeks ago.

Scott’s “Oliver!” moves well and displays good crowd control with the big numbers (always a great quality of shows with large ensembles like this). Of the many numbers that excite and will have you singing on the drive home, “Be Back Soon” and “Consider Yourself” are especially well done and the performers make “I’d Do Anything” mightily charming. There is a real sense of collaboration and accomplishment to what this cast pulls off. I even heard some strong vocals coming from the side curtains and backstage- proof that Scott and her colleagues are providing valuable instruction on how to enhance a production. There was a real hands-on team effort to the evening, complete with assistant director Frances Taua helming the lights (reportedly, it was his first time doing this since the 1990’s- well done, Francis!).

This was my first Theatre Theatre experience and I’m planning on making it a yearly priority to catch them again. Their past shows (some of which were directed by Derek Nakagawa) include fondly remembered renderings of “Robin Hood” (their debut production), “Tom Sawyer,” “Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Shrek Jr.,” to name a few. Theatre Theatre is visibly offering kids a chance to build on their performance abilities, participate in the craftsmanship of theater and build on memories that will inspire and encourage them. This is the final weekend to catch “Oliver!” and see what kind of magic Theatre Theatre is brewing…until next summer.

Oliver! plays 7PM, Fri-Sat, Sun at 2PM, at Lahaina Gateway Center, Suite 601 (next to Island Creamery) until July 29th. Tickets are available at the box office an hour before showtime. Pre-sale tickets are available at Lahaina Music.

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