"I was 10 when the movie came out and was already interested in theater," Armstrong said. "So to see the movie version of this terrific Broadway show had a tremendous impact. It's got a great score, with one great number after another, and a great melodrama that really has you rooting for this young boy."
The 1968 movie that Armstrong remembers so fondly is considered one of the best adaptations of a live musical, and both versions have won numerous awards. A large part of the credit goes to Lionel Bart's beautiful, emotional score, which is full of memorable songs -- including "Who Will Buy?" "I'd Do Anything" and "As Long As He Needs Me" -- that became popular hits in their own right.
"The score is so tuneful, full of melodies that get stuck in your head," Armstrong said, "but they're also little one-act plays that paint the world of Oliver Twist. That's incredibly hard to do."
But there's more to "Oliver!" than Bart's words and music. The script captures the essence of Charles Dickens' classic "Oliver Twist." Every word is taken directly from the novel, including one of the most heart-wrenching lines ever uttered on stage.
"Please, sir, I want some more," begs the underfed Oliver as he asks for more gruel, and our hearts go out to him.
But as anyone familiar with story knows, there is a happy ending, one with a message that Armstrong says makes "Oliver!" a perfect holiday show.
"We're always looking for a show for the holidays that is classic in every sense of the world, one that will create memories, that's not just fluff but is also emotionally touching," he said. "With messages of love and family at its core, 'Oliver!' is a show that draws people closer together."
Despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious appeal, "Oliver!" is a massive undertaking. The cast is huge: 66 actors in all, led by local favorite David Pichette as the evil Fagin, and includes 36 children.
That's more kids than Armstrong initially intended but so many more showed up for auditions, including twice as many boys as he'd expected, and he was so impressed by their talent that he has been able to double-cast not just Oliver but all 11 kids in Fagin's gang.
Of course, that many children present major logistical challenges so the 5th has hired two young women, whom Armstrong calls the "child wranglers." They make sure the kids are where they need to be, have things to do when they're not on stage and generally behave themselves from rehearsals through the closing performance on New Year's Eve.
"Oliver!" runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 31 with matinee and evening performances at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle; 206-625-1900.
Tickets are $9 to $145 at www.5thavenue.org/show/oliver.
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