The 5th Avenue opened its holiday show "Oliver!" last weekend and it is a warm, colorful affair. "Oliver!" has a special place in many theatre-goers’ hearts; either you’ve been in it, know someone who has, or you grew up watching the beloved film version. As David Armstrong pointed out in his director’s notes, "Oliver!" is a gateway show for burgeoning theatre-lovers. If you have kids who are ready to sit in a theatre (age seven and up), the 5th’s production is a wondrous first experience.
Based on the Charles Dickens novel, the musical has an amazing score – “Food, Glorious Food,” “Where is Love?,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Pick a Pocket or Two,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Oom Pah Pah,” “Who Will Buy?” – and enough humor to balance the darker themes. The grit and grime of the Dickens tale is washed away leaving a perfect production for a family outing, quite a feat considering the cast of characters include mistreated orphans, thieves, murderers, prostitutes, and liars. There is one on-stage murder, but it’s done as tastefully as possible, so no worries about your kid experiencing a "Lieutenant of Inishmore" or "Sweeney Todd" moment.
This classic story follows Oliver Twist (Mark Jeffrey James Weber and Jack Fleischmann alternate in the role), an orphan who escapes his life in a workhouse and finds himself amongst a lovable band of scallywags and young ruffians including the Artful Dodger (Grayson Smith) and led by Fagin (David Pichette), the only grown-up. Other ne’er-do-wells in London’s thieving underworld include the kind-hearted but tough lady of the night Nancy (Merideth Kaye Clark), her plucky friend Bet (Keaton Whittaker), and the dangerous gangster Bill Sykes (Hans Altwies). Oliver eventually finds his place in the world, the real scoundrels get what’s coming to them, and the cheeky rogues get to continue to be cheeky and roguish.
The Artful Dodger and Nancy are standouts in this production. Smith as Dodger is so alive on stage that Oliver’s world does really seem bleak until he arrives. Clark, known for playing Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked, is a strong and empathetic actress and singer. Their ”I’d Do Anything” duet is a definite highlight.
Weber as Oliver looks as angelic as he sounds. Pichette as Fagin walks a fine line between being a cold-hearted crook and caring deeply for his gang of boy thieves, which makes for an enjoyable performance, especially “Pick a Pocket or Two.” Altwies as Bill Sykes is a scary villain, but not without nuance – one does detect the slightest whiff of hesitation before his ultimate crime in the second act. Also, his dramatic make-up and chops make him look a bit like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (which is not necessarily a bad thing and, by the way, would be a pretty amazing mash-up).
Cayman Ilika’s rich voice rises above the rest in her small but attention-grabbing solo as the milkmaid in “Who Will Buy?” Andrew Davison as Noah Claypole, who taunts poor Oliver in the undertaker’s shop, is a very convincing jerk.
Saturday’s matinee was a little wobbly – there were multiple sound issues, the cast seemed a little off on a couple of the big dance numbers, and the titular song had some weird spaces between verses (I wasn’t sure if this was due to this particular version of the musical). To be honest, though, the biggest oversight in this production is the lack of Mister Bumble and Widow Corney’s “I Shall Scream” number. This reviewer might be in the very small (or nonexistent) minority of folks who actually like that song, but consarn it, it’s hilarious and it was missed.
Despite these mishaps, the elements of a holiday blockbuster are all there: big vibrant cast, fun costumes (especially the undertaker’s family), a show brimming with hit songs, a happy ending. It’s more than enough to make you forget that it’s already 20 degrees and it’s not even winter yet.