OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist

Oliverio

OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist

  • playing at Kennedy Center (Washington, DC)
  • dates: now through February 21, 2016
  • directed by Juliette Carrillo
  • book and lyrics by Karen Zacarías
  • music by Deborah Wicks La Puma
  • Roar Score: 4/5

My 6-year-old daughter is suddenly a huge fan of musical theater. She’s constantly asking us to play the cast recordings for Wicked, Matilda, and Les Miserables, and she recently came home raving about a local performance of Oliver! It was therefore with great interest that we learned of the Kennedy Center’s newest offering in their Theater for Young Audiences series: a musical retelling of Charles Dickens’s Oliver set in Brazil.

Our excitement only amplified when we learned that the music was by Deborah Wicks La Puma, the woman responsible for the music in the charming Elephant & Piggie’s We Are In a Play!

OLIVERio 13 - Photo by Teresa Wood

OLIVÉRio opens with the actors wandering on stage, and it quickly sets up a “play within a play” premise that kids will love. The actors are confounded why the set looks like Brazil rather than 19th century London, and the entire play is almost canceled when there’s no Oliver to be found.

Then an excited voice comes from somewhere in the audience. A young girl runs forward from her seat, hops up on stage, and takes over the role, exclaiming that “girls can do anything.” Oliver is now Olivério…Esperança Olivério, to be exact. But you can call her Oli.

Why would Charles Dickens write something that makes us both sad?

The play is set on the eve of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and the young orphan Oli has traveled by herself for thousands of miles to give thanks to Iemanja, goddess of the sea. Iemanja, who was ready to flood the city out of frustration for the people’s selfishness, is calmed by Oli’s innocence and virtue. Oli is a determined optimist who refuses to believe the worst of anyone.

Nevertheless, Oli soon falls in with con men and pickpockets Falcão (Fagin) and Zé Esquiva (Artful Dodger) and stays with them in Rio’s notorious favelas.

The story follows many of the same beats as Oliver (the book) and Oliver! (the musical), but it obviously has its own distinct Brazilian personality – not least of which are the songs and music.

The songs are a mix of Brazilian flavors, and the show features both a samba and a bossa nova number, performed by a live trio on stage with the actors. The musicians are phenomenal and almost worth the price of admission alone.

OLIVERio 5 - Photo by Teresa Wood

The actors themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, unfortunately, but Felicia Curry shines as Oli – the epitome of bright-eyed innocence and limitless hope. She singlehandedly carries the show and makes OLIVÉRio a must-see. Her acting and singing (especially the latter) carry the show to its heights and swept my daughter off her feet. (This, to me, is the sign of success.)

You can give up or you can give in.
Or you can decide to swim.

The show also gets high marks for incorporating the Brazilian martial art of capoeira into the story of Oliver Twist and somehow managing to make it feel natural.

If you know the story of Oliver!, then you’re probably aware of some events late in the show that might be difficult for young audiences to grasp. OLIVÉRio deals with this exceptionally well by recalling that this is, indeed, a play within a play. Oli breaks the fourth wall and, like the strong heroine she is, decides to take control and become the author of her own story.

After all, “girls can do anything.”

The show is currently playing at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater through February 21, 2016. Tickets are on sale here and selling out fast. The 1:30 p.m. performance on Sun., February 14 is sensory friendly.

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