BWW Reviews: 5th Ave's OLIVER! Doesn't Have That Oom-Pah-Pah
Any Charles Dickens' tale basically has the same theme, working through adversity to get to hope. But even with that simplistic theme his characters are extremely nuanced and complex. And any production of a Dickensian play needs those nuances lest the show just turn into melodrama. Unfortunately the current production of "Oliver!" at the 5th Avenue Theatre is lacking in that nuance as well as much spark so that it mostly comes across as going through the motions.
We all know the tale. Young orphan Oliver Twist (played on alternate nights by Jack Fleischmann and Mark Jeffrey James Weber) escapes from the workhouse and goes on a journey from a life with a gang of underage pick pockets to the lap of luxury. And what Lionel Bart has done to this classic tale is infused it with some of the most memorable and heart-wrenching songs that have clearly stood the test of time as this show is standard of theaters big and small (a fact that is in no small part due to the number of adorable kids in the show). But what many productions seem to miss out on is how dark the show really is. Sure there's the rousing numbers like "Oom-Pah-Pah" or the joyfully inclusive "Consider Yourself", but there's also Bill Sykes (Hans Altwies) who's one of the most sinister bad guys around and his ever faithful girlfriend Nancy (Meredith Kaye Clark) who sticks with him through years of abuse. Or how about the creepy Fagin (David Pichette) who may serve as some of the comic relief of the show but also, underneath it all, is just a guy making children, including his protégé the Artful Dodger (Grayson J. Smith), steal for him.
It's that underlying darkness that makes the characters and the show more than just a toe-tapping romp with kids. But director David Armstrong has painted these characters with such broad strokes that their nuances and complexities have all but disappeared. And that is a shame considering the level of talent on that stage, as I know many of those actors have much finer paintbrushes in their kits had they been allowed to break them out. But instead the entire show seems to have been watered down for the masses making it look less like "Oliver" and more like "Meet Me in St. Louis". And with that very presentational style and almost abandonment of any complexities of the story they might as well have just done a concert of the songs as any storytelling seemed to just be an interlude to get to the next number. And speaking of interludes, music director Joel Fram has for some reason added in various pauses and orchestrations to certain moments that did nothing but disrupt whatever flow the show had and at times confuse the audience.
The kids are passable. There's not too much mugging (which is always my fear in a show with kids) and they collectively have gorgeous voices but individually lacked the presence and timing needed for the larger roles. Pichette makes the most out of Fagin within the confines of this production but could have done so much more. Clark is a newcomer to Seattle stages and has a powerhouse of a voice but lacked the depth and layers needed for the damaged Nancy especially in her big number (and one of my favorite songs from any show) "As Long as He Needs Me" which can tell the story of heartbreaking unconditional love or it can be just a big belty tune. Clark gave us the latter. The best and most honest portrayals of the night came from Altwies' Sykes and Allen Fitzpatrick as MR. Brownlow. You could actually feel Fitzpatrick's concern and love for young Oliver giving his character more depth than just the rich guy who took in the orphan. And Altwies manages some wonderful turns but even he gets a little lost under the weight of the broadly drawn show.
The production has some heft to it with some beautiful costumes and a grand set but was also not free from issues as there were more than a few technical problems on opening night such as torches that wouldn't stay lit and just kind of gassed the audience, microphones that got muffled during big numbers and a main curtain that repeatedly had to be raised and lowered in order to clear the set (at one point awkwardly leaving the cast on stage in a frozen tableau as they worked it out). And while those gaffs could be chalked up to opening night gremlins, when coupled with the heavy handedness of the show as a whole it just made the evening even more unimpressive. I wouldn't say it was bad. They hit all the points and they hit them hard but I cannot say they hit them well.
Photo credit: Tracy Martin