Actor Rick Hammerly discovered the brilliance of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! at an early age – a very early age. “Mom saw the show when she was five months pregnant,” he explains. “She told me, ‘When they fired that gun at the end, you almost arrived four months early.” He grew up listening to the album but didn’t perform in the show until accepting the role of Fagin in the Adventure Theatre MTC production, running through August 16 at Round House Theatre.
“It’s a little crazy,” he says. “It’s a role I’m well equipped for, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t on my radar. But that incredibly persuasive Mr. Bobbitt (Adventure Theatre’s Artistic Director) said I could do this. Then I remembered all those songs. It was sort of impossible not to jump at the chance.”
Hammerly received a Helen Hayes Award for his star turn in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Signature Theatre and has a healthy respect for the musical genre. “The upkeep is so hard,” he admits. “It’s very focused on your voice. When I did Hedwig I would shut up all day. I’d start talking around five, and do a real warm-up from six or seven.” The role of Fagin allows for a relaxation of the Hedwig regimen. “It’s really a character role first,” Hammerly explains. “Felicia [Curry] has got to come in and belt out these ballads and I just don’t. If I’m raspy a little bit, it actually sounds right for the character.“
Hammerly and Curry, who plays Nancy, share a dressing room and enjoy a nightly ritual when Hammerly leaves to make his first entrance. He explains, “I always say to her, ‘Good show. Don’t dawdle!’” Asked for a favorite moment on stage, he doesn’t hesitate. “It's when Felicia Curry gets her butt on that stage. Just before, I’ve got this great number, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.’ Then Felicia comes on and we start doing some numbers with all the kids. It’s joyous. I feel very safe with her.”
The show, which premiered in 1960, has lost none of its power. “It’s a simplified version of [Dickens’] Oliver Twist,” Hammerly says. “They’ve pruned and combined things but the show still deals with society and class and the difference between the upper crust and the real folk. It’s really the one percent and the ninety-nine percent. That’s literally what this deals with.”
The narrative centers on issues of identity. “Who is Oliver?” Hammerly asks. “He was born into one class but is living in another. Does that define who we are? When you watch this show, you really are looking at how we are all the same – the same needs, the same desires, wanting to be loved, wanting to be part of something. You see that in all the class levels in Oliver!”
No stranger to Dickens, Hammerly is an audience favorite at Ford’s Theatre where he plays Fezziwig in the annual production of A Christmas Carol. There, too, he spends a lot of time with children. “I make myself out to be this cranky old man but somehow these damn kids – every single time I really enjoy it,” he says. “There’s such a willingness to work and to do the best they can and to try anything.” Hammerly notes the pitfalls of a successful career. “As we get older, as we get a reputation, as we fear failure, we start to self edit and check ourselves. It’s a valuable lesson to watch these kids who have little to no fear. Plus there’s something about pets and children. They love me. I’m not sure why. I don’t treat them different I guess. I don’t talk down to them. Children respond to that.”
He sees Oliver! as a unique opportunity for families. “You know, poor Nancy gets it in the end,” he points out, referring to the murder of Curry’s character. “Parents have to be ready to explain what happens to her, or why [villain] Bill Sykes is so mean to Oliver.” For Hammerly, the theatre is the perfect venue for confronting such difficult topics. “With Nancy, fifteen minutes after she dies, Miss Felicia comes out for the curtain call and sings a song with me. It’s real life but it’s also theatre. You can say, ‘Hey that was just a show’ but you can also bring up tough topics that your child will eventually have to deal with.”