Consider Yourself Warned

Oliver! at the 5th Avenue Theatre Is Not Up to the 5th Avenue's Standards

Consider Yourself Warned

Mark Kitaoka

OLIVER! This kid’s better than most of the adults.

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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. recommended


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I don't think the bolting for the exits proves anything. That's what Seattle audiences do, treat curtain calls (at the Opera and PNB too) like they were the credits at a movie that doesn't have the promise of Nick Fury coming out if they stay till the end.
Posted by ratzkywatzky on December 11, 2013 at 1:28 PM · Report this
We stayed for the curtain call, expressly for Altwies. I agree with this review. I found the production generally boring, and although I could sense there were great actors before me, they weren't showcased.
Posted by 5th Subscriber 24 on December 11, 2013 at 2:40 PM · Report this
The main reason they bolt is to get a lead on getting out of the parking garages and beat the traffic, something I've experienced as both a stagehand with the Opera and as a patron. The set is repurposed from "The Prince and the Pauper" though that's a common practice with theaters.
Posted by cadimoff on December 11, 2013 at 10:36 PM · Report this
Mr. Bumble was not a "headmaster." He was the parish Beadle (a lay official of a church), hence the hat and mace, who merely administers the children from the baby farms to the workhouses, etc. Headmasters are for schools. In this case the board would be the "headmasters."

Which leads to the second correction - Oliver Twist was not still the orphanage (baby farm) but a Workhouse.

Workhouses were for profit and run by a board of directors. Under the old English Poor Laws at age of nine children were considered old enough to work and they were taken from the Church and government funded orphanages and sent to work in the for profit Workhouses or factories.

And... well there are other small errors that I won't bother with.

While it's true the musical took great liberty on Dickens original, a review that is accurate with the historical details that the musical DID bother to keep lends much more aggressive resonance and texture to the characters and their motives. And it's hard to take a review seriously that get's so many basic facts of the story incorrect.
Posted by tkc on December 13, 2013 at 5:09 PM · Report this
@4: I defy you to explain how knowing the organizational hierarchy of 19th Century London Workhouses would have made "Boy for Sale" less tedious.
Posted by Bob Koerner on December 13, 2013 at 9:33 PM · Report this
It may have been tedious as hell. But the reviewer could have bothered to read the god damned program to get the character titles and settings correct.

Now it's possible it was all so tedious that Frizzelle was in an hypnotic state when sat down to write. But its not too much to expect a theater critic to have a passing familiarity with the English literature canon- including Dickens and Oliver Twist in particular, or at least understand basic fucking fact checking and editing when he dedicates an entire page to a scathing review. He is the god damned editor of the paper, after all.
Posted by tkc on December 14, 2013 at 7:49 AM · Report this
Posted by UberAlles on December 14, 2013 at 7:51 AM · Report this
I can't believe they cut "That's Your Funeral". Allen would have sung the hell out of that.
Posted by wormletter on December 14, 2013 at 9:35 AM · Report this
MarkyMark 9
I bolted for the exits at the last note of Anything Goes (which I thought rather dull) due to the abject terror of being caught in an hour-long traffic-jam getting out of the nearby parking garage. It worked.
Posted by MarkyMark on December 14, 2013 at 1:24 PM · Report this
auntie jim 10
The "boy" in the picture appears to be a young adult woman or adult F to M transgender person. Or just poor lighting and makeup?
Posted by auntie jim on December 14, 2013 at 6:52 PM · Report this
I agree that this production was dull and uninspiring. The cast advanced to the front and did their number and then moved back to prepare for the next number.

And how could they chop "It's Your Funeral"? To save 5 minutes? Why o why would they chop one of the most clever songs after "Review the Situation". They also chopped "I Shall Scream" - why?

Youth Theatre Northwest with its child cast did better a few years ago.
Posted by TheatreLovingMom on December 27, 2013 at 6:13 AM · Report this

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