The 5th Avenue Theatre presents the musical Oliver! this Christmas season through Dec 31. The music and lyrics by Lionel Bart have become as familiar as the original story and inspiration for the musical, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. As familiar as this classic crowd-pleaser may be, a good production always makes it feel fresh, and if you have only seen the 1968 film version, this extraordinary live performance will be a new experience, indeed. Directed by David Armstrong, Oliver! stretches every note it can to deliver its message of hope and survival in a callous and predatory world. The performance is top-notch and a must-see for musical theatre lovers. The question is: Is it worth the trip for everyone else? I believe it is, but it’s worth unpacking the complicated facts about Oliver!
Dickens’ stories were enormously popular in his day, but not because they rosily glossed prevalent social ills. His characters are morally complex and they navigate a realistic world, corrupt from the upper crust to the demimonde, but there is always a chance for redemption. Dickens was at his most imaginative and most redemptive when he penned A Christmas Carol, which is more famously associated with this season. His works have been accused of being too sentimental, but the writer himself did not pine or dream idly. He actively sought reform, especially regarding education and the rights of children. In our time when social inequality is again being examined and discussed—and in a city with a rather large population of homeless youth—Dickens’ characters and themes seem especially relevant.
But when you watch Oliver!, you are seeing less of Dickens and more of Lionel Bart, who had his own story and era. Bart’s musicals have achieved great longevity, and Oliver! is still a standard in the UK, but the composer and writer suffered a major slump after his early successes. Oliver! was his third musical, his first smash, and he never repeated its success. It debuted in 1960, in the mid-century, middle class golden age—the age of post-War baby booms, Cold War bomb scares, and Civil Rights rumbling. Dickens’s works had never lost their luster; Oliver Twist had been adapted for film many times over. A sparkling musical inspired by it did two things: It gave his themes and characters a slightly less dreary and prosaic world to live in, and it brought to full bloom the buds of sentimentality that some critics disliked in his work. Dickens was a realist at heart, but Bart was an escapist, and it shows.
And yet Bart created several cultural touchstones in Oliver! that are more resonant on stage (and screen). The scene when Twist asks for more gruel (and the bellowing response from Mr. Bumble) has become iconic because of the musical and later film adaptation. The medium is the message and catchy songs and dances and punctuated moments of drama are what make a musical. As social commentary, Oliver! is not effective, and it will always draw criticism because its source material was. Oliver! is an unabashed spectacle with a message of deliverance and hope, family-friendly even in its moments of greatest despair and peril. Oliver! really is Oliver’s world. He and his naïve courage serve as the lens through which the audience views his world and the moral complexity of its inhabitants. For the musical to be effective, the production must present such a fully realized world and the acting must show this complexity. The 5th Avenue production succeeds.
The sets embellished and period costumes are beautiful and allow for plenty of movement, which provides another subliminal aspect of the world according to Twist. Though the urchins and other members of the lowest class face a grim reality, the sets and numbers unfold in such a way that the opportunities and avenues seem infinite on the mean streets of London. We know this is a fantasy, an essential state of mind for the young protagonist, even when circumstances seem darkest and most cruel.
The lead role is ably performed and shared (night to night) by Jack Fleischmann and Mark Jeffery James Weber. Among the morally complex figures he meets, the loving fallen woman Miss Nancy is dearest to Twist. Merideth Kaye Clark owns that role with an astounding voice and acting chops that give her performance the heart of gold that it needs. Grayson J. Smith has all the necessary pluck and charisma to play the Artful Dodger, world-weary but youthful, and sympathetic even as he ushers Twist into the criminal underground of London. David Pichette plays the hypnotic Fagin, whose turmoil and conflict are palpable. Hans Altwies plays Bill Sikes, the not so typical bad guy, the ruthless hunter of the underground destined to prowl.
The cast is large with some doubling and each part is played to the maximum, an ode to the human spirit—in all its moral ambiguity—that makes the most invisible classes of society larger than life. It brings light into the heart and happiness to the mind, and perhaps some measure of Dickens’ social platform will persist. For fans of the book, for fans of musical theatre, and for those who want to see a story of generosity and redemption that isn’t the most typical holiday fare, Oliver! at the 5th Avenue Theatre is a must see.
Oliver! plays through December 31st at the 5th Avenue Theatre.