The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave. 625-1900, 5thavenue.org. $41 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends Dec. 31.
Consider yourself amused. This handsome, high-stepping production is perfectly suited to the holidays. Mind you, this is no Dickensian manifesto about orphans and income inequality; Oliver! is an entertainment focused on flooding the streets with throngs of happy patrons humming its tunes and recommending it to friends and relatives.
It’s been 23 years since the 5th last mounted Oliver!, and while Dickens’ template of street urchins making their way through Victorian England remains intact, director David Armstrong makes certain that his star-crossed ragamuffin is depicted as an indomitable underdog whose ultimate triumph is never more than a production number away. Accordingly, this is an ebullient Oliver!, done up in bright yuletide colors, wearing heart on sleeve, where a sturdy melody can overcome any adversity.
Composer/playwright Lionel Bart would certainly have approved, since it was he who in 1960 excised the grimy, unsavory aspects of child labor during the Industrial Revolution and replaced them with such sing-alongs as the beer-chugging “Oom Pah-Pah” and the showstopper “Consider Yourself.”
Armstrong’s light touch is everywhere here, from his winning Oliver (played alternately by Jack Fleischmann and Mark Jeffrey James Weber) to his feel-good Fagin (David Pinchette), whom the Jewish Bart mostly stripped of Dickens’ anti-Semitic stereotypes. This Fagin is less a villainous predator than some sort of chipper headmaster of a benign boys’ dormitory.
Darker elements are leavened either by songs or performers, as the Artful Dodger (Grayson J. Smith) steals one scene after another. As Nancy, Merideth Kaye Clark belts every ballad to the balcony. Even malevolent highwayman Bill Sikes (Hans Altwies) gets a makeover that renders him more rakish than dangerous—he’s a romance-novel cover boy with a mean streak.
The costumes, by Sarah Nash Gates, make great eye candy; Tom Sturge’s lights and sets work in dazzling synchronicity; and, leading the live orchestra, Joel Fram highlights every nuance he can uncover in Bart’s score. Purists will find this Oliver! has little of Oliver Twist ’s outrage about avarice and poverty. But we can leave that for the next election. For now, as a confection of songcraft, performance, and production, Oliver! is practically irresistible.