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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Oliver! a Brightly Wrapped Yet Empty Package
at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's reviews of Play It Again, Santa and Thankskilling


Hugh Hastings and Company
Theatre companies often turn to a traditional Dickens tale for holiday fare, but that would be A Christmas Carol, a holiday centered tale of hope and redemption, not Oliver!, based on Dickens' "Oliver Twist," which, despite its lively Lionel Bart score, is at its core a rather dark tale for holiday consumption, if properly interpreted. Director David Armstrong's gaily wrapped production at the 5th Avenue strains to minimize the dark shadows of this timeless tale, but that rather defeats its purpose, and results in the weakest 5th Avenue holiday season production in memory.

Oliver! was arguably the most successful British musical, pre-Andrew Lloyd Webber era, but it was never exactly a model of integration of book and musical numbers. The tale of a pitiful orphan's journey from workhouse to minion in a den of thieves to ultimate salvation in the arms of a wealthy lost relation alternated from story songs like "Where is Love?" and "As Long as He Needs Me" to bouncy, pointless showstoppers such as "Who Will Buy?" and "Consider Yourself." Indeed, the film version actually improved matters by utilizing Nancy's barroom rouser "Oom Pah Pah" number into a ruse for concealing Oliver's getaway from the criminal gang. But at the 5th, number tumbles upon number, performed with gusto but little purpose. A game cast gives its all and, under Joel Fram's succinct musical direction, they sound great, but without a mounting sense of drama, we've seen enough by the end of the first act to call it a night.

David Pichette as Fagin, the creepy father figure to the gang of boys, can't make the character remotely likable for all his artistry. Meredith Kay Clark is a fine alto belter, but her Nancy is not directed with any depth or shading. Hans Altwies manages to bring some menace to the big baddie role of Bill Sikes, Hugh Hastings is a jovial buffoon as Mr. Bumble, and Allen Fitzpatrick and Matthew Posner give two of the evening's best performances as kindly Mr. Brownlow and blithering Dr. Grimwig, respectively, while Keaton Whittaker sparkles as Nancy's sidekick Bet. As the Artful Dodger who leads Oliver into the gang, Grayson J. Smith nails the character and proves an able young song and dance man. Jack Fleischmann is personable, sweet-voiced and never saccharine in the title role (he alternates the part with Mark Jeffrey James Weber). Many stalwarts of the Seattle musical theatre community, including Cheryl Massey Peters, Karen Skrinde, Cayman Ilika and Billie Wildrick, are assets to the large ensemble cast, and the youngsters playing Fagin's boys do their job with relish.

Bob Richard's choreography has its sprightly moments, if little originality. Sarah Nash Gates' costumes are picture postcard pretty even when the scene calls for impoverished. The scenic and lighting design by Tom Sturge impresses, save for the show curtain getting snagged on the set now and then. Sound design by Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV was a bit off on opening night, with Pichette's miking a notable problem.

Oliver! runs through December 31 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., For tickets go to www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Mark Kitaoka



- David Edward Hughes



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