Consider Yourself Warned
Oliver! at the 5th Avenue Theatre Is Not Up to the 5th Avenue's Standards
It's hard to think of a musical more suited to the current moment than Oliver! First of all, it's snowy and showy and Londony, so it's suited for the holidays. More deeply, it's about the excesses of a free market and the ways it corrupts and deforms people. There's the corpulent headmaster of an orphanage, Mr. Bumble, who horrifyingly sells off one of the kids in his care, Oliver Twist, because the little guy annoys him by saying that he's hungry; there's an undertaker and his wife, who can only be described as morbid entrepreneurs, who buy the kid; and there's a den of thieves profiting from the spoils of the industrial revolution by picking the pockets of the wealthier classes, their operation presided over by a venal, gold-hoarding criminal named Fagin who takes financial advantage of his boys while pretending to take care of them. Probably the best encapsulation of the velvet-black richness of this material is in the number "That's Your Funeral," the song the undertaker and his wife sing when they buy Oliver. Staring at the silent, terrified boy, the undertaker sings:
He's a born undertaker's mute.
I can see him in his black silk suit.
Following behind the funeral procession
with his features fixed in a suitable expression.
There'll be horses with tall black plumes
to escort us to the family tombs,
with mourners in all corners
who've been taught to weep in tune.
By the time the undertaker and his wife get to "We will not reduce our prices/Keep your vices usual," you realize Oliver! is a linguistically sneaky comedy wrapped around the business of death. The business of bodies. The business of people and what they're worth. Not a bad choice for a musical when, outside the theater, low-wage workers are revolting and socialists are winning elections.
But "That's Your Funeral" has been cut from this 5th Avenue Theatre production. It's one of many decisions by director David Armstrong I just don't understand. (And not just because it leaves Allen Fitzpatrick, a talented Broadway veteran who plays the undertaker, underutilized. Psst, David—if you need to cut something, please, for the love of God, cut the tedious "Boy for Sale.") Armstrong is also the artistic director of the 5th Avenue, a job he's brilliant at: He gives great local actors lots of work, he hosts fantastic out-of-town productions (the recent touring production of Anything Goes was phenomenal), he develops new musicals and sends them to Broadway, and by all accounts he's steered the theater well through the economically turbulent last few years. But his directing choices are another matter. Judging from the set for Oliver!, you'd never guess the theater is doing well financially. London has never looked cleaner or so cheaply made—and orchestra tickets run as high as $150. ("That set looked like a kindergarten made it," said a Cornish theater graduate after the show.) Nor do I understand what Armstrong sees in choreographer Bob Richard, who contributed undistinguished choreography to last season's The Music Man and returns this time with even more heavily hand-gesture-based choreography. (There are legions of children in this production, but that doesn't explain why Richard doesn't give the adult dancers more interesting things to do.)
The orchestra, conducted by Joel Fram, is flawless—that's something the 5th Avenue always gets right. But the principal actors singing over the orchestrations (Merideth Kaye Clark as Nancy and David Pichette as Fagin) convey the sense that they got no attention from their director and really don't know what they should be doing with themselves. Only two performances are really good: Hans Altwies plays Bill Sikes, the oldest of Fagin's thieves, with an icy brilliance, underplaying the role to creepy effect, even managing to get applause halfway through his one solo song by tricking the audience into thinking it's over, which is such a Bill Sikes thing to do. And then there's a breathtaking stunt Altwies performs at the end of act two—a startling piece of stagecraft, even if you know it's coming. The other exceptional performance is Jack Fleischmann as Oliver. (At least, he played Oliver on opening night; an alternate actor plays Oliver in some performances.) A sixth grader at Seattle Academy, Fleischmann is charming, pitch-perfect, and blameless. But two performances only go so far. Many audience members bolted for the exits at the start of the curtain call.