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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 15 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 46
Finding Fagin - An exclusive interview with Oliver! cast member David Pichette
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Finding Fagin - An exclusive interview with Oliver! cast member David Pichette

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

OLIVER!
5TH AVENUE THEATRE
November 29 - December 31


David Pichette is well known to Seattle audiences. He's appeared at Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Intiman, and has trod the boards at the 5th Avenue many times. In Candide and most recently as the Modern Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance, David has entertained Seattle and continues to do so. As the beloved villain Fagin, he makes his latest appearance once again at the 5th Avenue in the classic musical, Oliver!

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences on becoming an actor?

David Pichette: In a sort of incidental way it was my seventh grade English teacher. We all had to memorize a certain number of verses from 'The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere' and recite them in front of the class. I ended up memorizing the whole poem and performing it. That was my first taste of [theater] blood.

Andrews-Katz: What was your first professional stage production?

Pichette: That depends on how you define it. The first Equity show I did was The Crucible. But the first time I got a paying job was in the show A Thousand Clowns. I was playing Nick, the kid in the play. I was still in high school and it was a summer stock production. It was non-Equity but I was paid.

Andrews-Katz: How did you become involved with the 5th Avenue Theatre?

Pichette: It was at first, from one of the productions of A Christmas Carol at ACT Theatre. At that time Steve was doing a production of Oh, Coward!, the revue of Noel Coward's work, at the Rep. After that, Steve was hired as director for 1776 at the 5th Avenue the next year and hired me to play John Adams. That was my introduction to the 5th Avenue.

Andrews-Katz: What is the most challenging type of role for you?

Pichette: As a 'character actor' you are so lucky because there are so many different parts that you can get. One of the things that have been very exciting for me is that I sort of hit this new career as I approached mid/late middle age, and here I was beginning this new career in musicals. I did them in my 20s - most people do when they first start out, because there are so many opportunities in musicals - but I hadn't done one for over 30 years. Until I ended up doing it at the 5th Avenue with 1776. That whole world is very specifically challenging in a way that other forms of theater aren't.

Every format of theater - contemporary plays, Shakespeare, or musicals - have their own set of challenges when putting together a performance. What's refreshing about a musical is that it's so directed about learning the music, dances, and each scene. They are all there and available to provide a set for the audience while being directed toward them at the same time. There's really no place to hide on stage in a musical. You're always in the spotlight. In a way I feel the same way as doing Shakespeare. Shakespeare is larger than life! [His works are] very emotional, very intense, and often address the audience by itself in soliloquy. It's not much different from having a big number in a musical. It's the same kind of intimacy establishing your connection with the audience. There's no one else on stage and you are communicating directly to the audience! It's not common at all in realistic plays, but that's the main thing that works and makes [musicals] believable.

Andrews-Katz: In the Gothic show The Woman in Black you were one of only two people on stage. What challenges go into a show like that?

Pichette: That was such a good production - great sets! The one thing that is almost impossible to do on stage is any kind of ghost story - even Dracula. Ghost stories are notorious failures on stage. It's not like a movie and certainly not like a book. It's hard to be ambiguous about an event on stage, whether it's really happening or not. [The Woman in Black] is one of the exceptions that works dramatically. Even the film, with Daniel Radcliffe, is very well done.

Andrews-Katz: Seattle audiences will most recently recognize you from your acclaimed performance of the Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance. How difficult was it to learn that infamous patter song?

Pichette: You know, when I was learning the song it didn't seem to be that bad. Performing it was always just terrifying. If you make the slightest mistake with that song, the whole thing runs off the rails. If I had more experience doing Gilbert & Sullivan, perhaps I wouldn't have been so nervous about it, but I found it so nerve-wracking, despite it being so satisfying. It's been a long time since I did a part, and I can't remember when was the last time, that I felt that kind of nerves before going on. Then I'd go out and enjoy it. But you feel the pressure. Everyone expects something special from that number. But it was enormous fun to do, and I hope to do more Gilbert & Sullivan.

Andrews-Katz: Currently you are playing Fagin in the classic musical Oliver! He's definitely a thief, but is he an evil man?

Pichette: He's a crook, no doubt about that, but compared to the upper management of WaMu or Lehman Brothers, he's practically a philanthropist. In the 1830s in London there is no such thing as a safety net socially. These children are homeless and basically human garbage as far as society is concerned. Fagin gives them a place relatively safe to sleep, he gives them food and a way to make a living. Given the state of society at that point, he's actually doing more for them the 'good people' would. One of the things about this show is that the play begins with 'Food, Glorious Food' in the workhouse. These are starving, malnourished, and hopeless children, and this is the state's idea of trying to keep them from dying of starvation. Despite the fact that they are pickpockets and thieves, Fagin's kids are relatively healthy, they are lively, and they relate to the world and are going to survive. As a result, he's accomplished more than the social system does for these people.

Andrews-Katz: What happens to Fagin after the musical ends?

Pichette: That's one of those big question marks. They made the decision in the musical not to do the same as in the original book. There, Fagin is hanged. Fagin has his last night in the condemned cell and I think it's one of the first existential moments in fiction. At his trial you see a complete personality meltdown with Fagin. He thinks they are talking about somebody else. It's a brilliant and horrifying description. You don't run into that kind of writing again until well into the 20th century.

Andrews-Katz: In the book, Fagin is Jewish. Was Dickens anti-Semitic?

Pichette: Except for two very brief instances there isn't a single character that refers to Fagin as a Jew. It's only Dickens who keeps calling him that. All of these lowlifes and crooks don't care; it's immaterial to them. But Dickens as the narrator refers to him that way. London might have been anti-Semitic at that time but it was still a less dangerous anti-Semitism; there were no pogroms.

Andrews-Katz: You've written several adaptations for the stage. Your next is The Hound of the Baskervilles. Can you tell us a little about this upcoming production?

Pichette: They are going into previews of the show this weekend! R. Hamilton Wright co-wrote it with me. We did it after we did the adaptation of Double Indemnity. Bob has been manning the authorial boat by himself for the last two weeks. Now that they are going to evening performances, I'll be able to catch the previews after the rehearsals for Oliver! are over. And I can see opening night! I probably will not get another chance to see my show again because we [at Oliver!] are on the same schedule. But that's show business.

Andrews-Katz: What role - regardless of gender or any other limitation - would you like to play in the future?

Pichette: I suppose James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night. That's sort of the older character actor's Mount Everest. It's about a guy who was an actor, who is now very dissatisfied with his life and with what his family has become. It's a great, great chewy role and a great American play. That's definitely the one I would like to take a crack at in the near future.

The musical Oliver! is family fun and based on the classic Dickens' tale Oliver Twist. Lionel Bart wrote the entire musical, including the music and lyrics. The show introduced such widely recognizable songs as 'Consider Yourself,' 'Where Is Love?,' and 'As Long as He Needs Me,' among many others.

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