Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a perennial holiday favorite, but its persistence in the musical theater canon owes everything to its litany of tuneful numbers and nothing to its ramshackle book, which substitutes broad caricatures and sentimental platitudes for Charles Dickens’s acute social critique.
The 5th Avenue Theatre’s well-appointed production, directed by executive producer and artistic director David Armstrong, seems determined to smooth over any of the source material’s rough edges, and since Bart’s goal seemed to be similar, it’s a pretty good fit. This is a musical in which a woman can sing about her love for her abusive boyfriend (“As Long as He Needs Me”) in a soaring, uplifting ballad, and a song called “It’s a Fine Life” set in the slums of London is a non-ironic, earnest romanticizing of a life of poverty.
Still, if you’re willing to succumb to the entertainment, the 5th’s production is pretty stellar across the board. The opening night Oliver Twist, Jack Fleischmann (he alternates in the role with Mark Jeffrey James Weber), is a capable moppet, guileless and optimistic without becoming too precious. Grayson J. Smith musters all of his putting-on-a-show moxie for his role as the Artful Dodger; his sincere enthusiasm in “I’d Do Anything” is a show highlight. And the great David Pichette’s fey Fagin is utterly delightful; who cares if the show portrays a child-enslaver as a doddering, mostly harmless fool when the performance is this fun?
Playing it broad seems to be the best course of action in Oliver! Hugh Hastings’s comically imperious orphanage proprietor Mr. Bumble is a lot more memorable than the fine but solemn turns from Allen Fitzpatrick as the charitable Mr. Brownlow and Merideth Kaye Clark as surrogate mother Nancy (even if Clark’s bravura singing chops blew away everything else on stage that night). That said, it’s possible to go too far — witness Carol Swarbrick’s screeching undertaker’s wife Mrs. Sowerberry, a performance so shrill, you wish Oliver would get thrown back in the orphanage.
Like nearly everything at the 5th, Oliver! is gorgeous to look at. Tom Sturge’s scenic and lighting design create a fantasy-tinged London, from the relatively austere orphanage digs to the colorful Bohemian paradise of Fagin’s lair. Sarah Nash Gates’s costume design is at its best in the elaborate rags-chic of the band of street urchins.
Oliver! is on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre through Dec. 31. Tickets are available for purchase online.