When the 5th Avenue Theatre’s artistic director David Armstrong was ten, he fell in love with the musical Oliver!
“It’s one of the great classic musicals,” he said. “Lionel Bart put more hit songs in that one show than most composers write in a lifetime.”
For the ten-year-old Armstrong, the draw was seeing boys his age dancing and singing in the 1969 movie. “For many of my generation, it drew us into musical theater,” he said, comparing it to the impact of Annie on little girls a decade later.
As an adult, Armstrong always wanted to direct Oliver! Revisiting the musical, he found it “amazingly faithful” to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
The musical doesn’t shy away from the novel’s main themes, including its exposure of the horrors of poverty in Victorian London.
The children singing “Food, Glorious Food” in the orphanage are one narrow step away from real starvation, while Nancy’s brutal romance with Bill Sykes engenders both the tender “While He Needs Me” and the horrific chase across London Bridge.
Oliver! also captures Dickens’ exquisite humor, especially in the lively characters of Fagin and the Artful Dodger and their ditties such as "I'll Do Anything" and "Reviewing the Situation."
“We always look for a family friendly show for the season,” said Armstrong. “There’s generations of families who now view going to a show here as a holiday tradition. Oliver! is one where you can bring everyone from a ten-year-old to a Grandmother.”
For the current production at the 5th, Armstrong cast a vocally assured and experienced cast, starting with the children who fill the orphanage and “pick a pocket or two” for Fagin.
“We had 100 boys show up for the audition,” Armstrong recalled, “so we expanded the cast and doubled the number of children that we cast. So there’s two sets of Fagin’s gang alternating in performances.”
The show also has two Olivers: Jack Fleischmann and Mark Jeffery James Weber. Fleischmann is a 6th grader at Seattle Academy who appeared last year’s production of ELF – The Musical. A 7th grader at King’s Schools, Weber has sung with the Seattle Children’s Chorus and appeared the Hampton and DiMiero Jazz Festivals.
Another Elf alum, Grayson Smith, plays The Artful Dodger. Hans Altwies, last seen as the devilish Applegate in Damn Yankees at the 5th, portrays the menacing Sykes while Portland’s Merideth Kaye Clark makes her debut here as Nancy.
The cast also brings a number of Seattle favorites back to 5th’s stage, including David Pichette (Fagin), Allen Fitzpatrick (Mr. Sowerberry/Mr. Bronlow), and Carol Swarbrick (Mrs. Sowerberry/Mrs. Bedwin).
It’s been more than twenty years since Oliver! was produced at the 5th and the time just seemed right for the show, said Armstrong.
“This show melded Dickens and Bart into a whole new voice,” he said. “It’s timely, moving, funny, and really appropriate in how it treats serious issues suffused with joy. Christmas should be about taking care of your fellow man.”
Oliver! continues through Dec. 31 at the 5th. For tickets and times, check the theater’s website.