The 5th Avenue Theatre's Oliver! is a musical adventure chock full of talent (the play has a rotating cast of 45 children!) that manages to delicately deal with dark and gritty matters in a poignant, family-friendly way.
I have always had a soft spot for the musical Oliver!. As a 6-year-old, I played a workhouse boy in Spokane Civic Theatre’s production, alongside my brother. Two-and-a-half decades later, we can still remember all the words to "Food, Glorious Food" (and I can sometimes be found singing it to myself when I’m hungry). I hadn't seen the musical since my childhood, so hearing these familiar songs brought back some vivid memories of my first exposure to musical theater. Oliver! is an ideal choice for fledgling theatergoers, both for its cast full of children and its exuberant music.
An adaption of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, the musical takes place in 19th century London and tells the story an abused orphan Oliver (played on alternating nights by Jack Fleischmann and Mark Jeffrey James Weber), who is continuously placed in peril at the hands of adults who should be his protectors. First, as a workhouse boy, he is sold by Mr. Bumble (Hugh Hasting), the beadle of the workhouse, after having the audacity to ask for “more” following a meager serving of gruel. My son’s interest was immediately piqued by the cast of children playing starved orphans, singing and dancing with effortless skill onstage.
Things get even more bleak for Oliver, as he becomes a neglected and abused worker for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Allen Fitpatrick) and his wife (Carol Swarbrick). Oliver sings one of the musical's most haunting numbers, Where is Love?, in a particularly touching moment.
The highlight of the play — and where the cast most shines — begins after meeting the artful Dodger (Grayson J. Smith), a thieving street urchin working for Fagin (David Pichette), the leader of a gang of ragamuffin orphans that he teaches to “pick a pocket or two” for his own profit. Both Smith and Pichette were captivating. Fagin isn’t all greed and evil — there is something comically likable about his cunning nature. Smith plays the street-wise Dodger with such precocious talent, it’s hard to believe he is merely 12 years old.
The most charming number was I’d Do Anything, sung by Dodger, Oliver, Nancy (Meredith Kaye Clark) and her sister Bet (Keaton Whittaker), in which the boys charm the ladies with their feigned high-brow chivalry and vows of devotion. Nancy is the heroine of the play who serves as a maternal figure to Oliver and attempts to rescue him from a life of abuse by returning him to his grandfather. She is also, tragically, the victim of an abusive lover, Bill Sikes. Hans Altweis plays the villain with masterful malevolence and is especially intimidating as he sings. Nancy’s rendition of As Long as He Needs Me, a tragic justification of why she loves Bill, was impeccable and wrought with emotion. Her vocal performance was the highlight of the entire show.
The orchestra was flawless in their accompaniment, and visiting the orchestra pit at intermission was especially magical for my son. In a world where music and entertainment can be found with the mere push of a button, it was delightful to witness an orchestra in the flesh.
Parents should know
Oliver! is rated PG, but has some violence. Bill strikes Nancy and murders her at the end of the play, though her murder is mostly implied by dialogue and gesticulations rather than what the audience actually sees. This might be hard for a particularly sensitive child to handle, but my rather sensitive 6-year-old wasn't fazed. Bill is also shot by an officer at the end and falls onto the stage from a rooftop in quite the acrobatic feat, which received a collective gasp from the audience.
Many critics have said that this production lacks some edge, and that director David Armstrong has left out important musical numbers and watered down some of the musical’s darker elements, but I appreciate the subtle balance that it creates between the gritty story and the vibrant characters. More than anything, I was inspired by the cast of so many talented children and dynamic music.
“How do I become one of those kids on the stage? That looks fun!”
- Complimentary booster seats are available at the coat check for kids who need a boost seeing over the seat in front of them.
- The 5th Avenue Theatre welcomes children ages 4 and older. Children under 4, including babes in arms, will not be admitted.
- 5th Avenue productions are recommended for ages 8 and above, though my 6-year-old didn't have any problems and enjoyed himself. I recommend taking into account your child's temperament and ability to sit quietly for an extended period.
- Take advantage of the chance to wave to the musicians in the orchestra pit before the play and at intermission.
- The show runs 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission. Be sure to take little ones to use the restroom beforehand and at intermission so you don't have to miss anything.
- Snack items are available at concessions.
- You can buy a CD of music in the lobby. It's a great way to discuss the themes of the musical with kids and to remember the fun evening.
- Try to arrive early. Doors open 45 minutes before the show and seating begins 30 minutes before the curtain. Patrons arriving late will be seated at the first suitable pause in the performance in the least disruptive location.
- More tips for planning your visit can be found online.
If you go ...
Where and when: Oliver! performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through December 31st. Performance times vary by date.
Tickets: Single tickets start at $40.50 and can be purchased online or from the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900.
Parking: There are many parking options nearby, including free and discounted parking for season ticket holder.
About the author: Rory is mother to three young children and Parentmap's Social Media Coordinator. She loves musical theater and can often be found rocking out in her car to her collection of musical soundtracks.