'OLIVER!' presents steampunk Dickens

Kristin TillotsonStar Tribune

February 9, 2015

At a time when income inequality in the United States has never been higher, we could all use a bit of updated Dickens. Theater Latté Da’s new staging of “Oliver!” is just the soot-stained ticket. The reworked Broadway classic serves up plenty of fun alongside its cruel poverty, but does so without over-sugaring the gruel.

Director Peter Rothstein’s steampunk take on the tale of an orphan boy’s sojourn from workhouse to mean streets to loving home manages to stay true to the material, including beloved songs like “Food, Glorious Food” and “Consider Yourself,” while putting an original stamp on style and mood that allows even diehard fans of the 1968 Mark Lester/Jack Wild movie to see the show with fresh eyes.

“Steampunk,” if you’re wondering, is officially defined as a sci-fi genre that features ye olde steam-powered machinery, but blends elements of Victorian and modern fashion to create a mixed-up aura of eras. Think Helena Bonham Carter’s wardrobe and you get the idea.

The gray-on-gray industrial set (by Rick Polonek) looks straight out of a penny dreadful, using metal scaffolding plus occasional infusions of steam as a base, then exchanging superficial details to switch from the workhouse to the sewers that Fagin’s pickpocket urchins call home, then the Three Cripples Public House and the well-appointed house of Mr. Brownlow. Christine Richardson’s masterful costumes are a cacophony of color and layering, corsets and bustles.

Sixth-grader Nate Turcotte plays Oliver with endearing shyness, while 14-year-old Alec Fisher nails the Artful Dodger’s cocky showboating. But the show’s success hinges on pickpocket wrangler Fagin, and Bradley Greenwald owns the role, radiating dignity beneath the character’s frenetic, scheming shtick and executing Michael Matthew Ferrell’s spirited choreography with rakish aplomb.

Lauren Davis imbues Nancy with strength that’s all the more poignant during “As Long As He Needs Me,” her song of blind love for abusive thug Bill Sikes. Dieter Bierbrauer’s leather-clad, glowering Sikes is a menacing predator we’d have liked to see more of — except, of course, when he’s striking Nancy. Rothstein is to be commended for not whitewashing the simulated beatings. While not graphic enough to take away from the show’s family-friendly content, those few moments made some in the audience squirm, as they are meant to.

Music director Denise Prosek uses intimate sounds that include a mournful accordion, a violin that sings an affectionate duet with Oliver on “Where Is Love,” and creative percussion that instills urgency without distracting.

“Oliver!” is the third “Broadway Re-Imagined” collaboration between Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust. Let’s hope that they keep ’em coming.

OLIVER!: The Clanking Heart of Darkness

Ed HuyckCity Pages

February 9, 2015

For the first half-hour or so of the Theatre Latte Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust's Oliver!, you have a perfectly fine production of Lionel Bart's Oliver!

Then Bradley Greenwald enters the picture and ramps the show up to 11. As he has done so often over the years, Greenwald takes command of a character and makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

This time it is as Fagin, the thief-king who takes little orphan Oliver off the bad streets of Victorian London. Here, the character is a magic man (literally, as he showcases a number of magic tricks during "Pick a Pocket or Two") who hides some inner conflict about what he and the boys are doing.

It's not much self-doubt, but it gives a character that can be easily defined by stereotypes a bit of depth. Greenwald takes that for all it's worth. He also performs the hell out of Fagin's numbers.

A quick recap: Oliver Twist is a young orphan who, after having the audacity to ask for more than the starvation-level gruel offered at the workhouse, ends up on an adventure to London. There, he falls in with Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and starts to train as a thief.

Oliver has the worst first day of work ever, as he is nabbed on his first attempt at pickpocketing. The man he tries to rob takes pity on the boy and shows him a better life, but the denizens of the seedy world below are not willing to give up Oliver so easily.

Peter Rothstein's production doesn't hide the grime of the story, from giving us dozens of dirty workhouse boys at the beginning to the colorful-if-worn-and-torn clothes of Fagin's band. The look, certainly of Fagin and company, takes cues from steampunk (from set designer Rick Polenek and costume designer Alice Fredrickson), creating an intriguing visual contrast between these lower classes and the stuffy folks in control.

As Bill Sykes, Dieter Bierbrauer looks like a refugee from Rammstein, as he wears thigh-high boots, black leather pants, and colorful dreadlocks. His magnetic performance helps make his relationship with Nancy easier to understand.

That's also aided by Lauren Davis's performance. Nancy isn't the easiest character for modern audiences to understand, as she is locked in an obviously abusive relationship that still inspires her to sing songs of love and longing. Davis gives us clues as to why Nancy sticks around, and helps make her a convincing character.

Nate Turcotte struggled early on opening night as Oliver, with some vocal and technical issues. Once those cleared up, the young actor made the best of the role and provided a strong core to the show.

Rothstein's production, aided by choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell, offers plenty of entertainment through a fast-paced and visually engaging time. It's the stars, however, who make some moments something special.

"OLIVER!" review: Darker than the movie - and more realistic

Chris HewittSt. Paul Pioneer Press

February 8, 2015

If you think of "Oliver," you probably picture apple-cheeked orphans, cheerily singing that it sure would be swell if they could have another bowl of gruel, sort of a pre-"Annie" "Annie." But a new production of "Oliver" offers a much less apple-cheeked take on the show.

Opening with a blood-curdling wail, a loud factory whistle and a view of a massive, industrial set, the first moments of Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust's co-production of "Oliver" deliberately evoke three key opening elements of another bleak musical that is set in London around 1840, "Sweeney Todd." Under the direction of Peter Rothstein, this "Oliver" proceeds to make a case that the show -- with its spousal abuse, exploitation of children and murder -- is more akin to dark-hearted "Sweeney Todd" than to "Annie" or to the Oscar-winning moppet overload of the film version of "Oliver."

Dominated by Rick Polenek's impressive and versatile set, Rothstein's production mostly avoids sentiment. He steers the adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" closer to the book's pained and realistic portrait of a boy (sweet-voiced Nate Turcotte) who is passed from one bad situation to the next, ending up in a den of child thieves presided over by wily Fagin, who is determined to get out of them every cent he can. Fagin can come off like a music-hall charmer but Bradley Greenwald's Fagin is despairing and scared. Greenwald's "Reviewing the Situation," in particular, will ring true with anyone in today's audience who wonders how they're ever going to be able to retire.

Lauren Davis' Nancy, who becomes a sort of mother figure to little Oliver, is stronger and more confident than most Nancys (and Davis' singing voice has more belt in it), but that strength makes Nancy's powerlessness even more poignant: No matter how much she has going for her, she can't survive in a world with little use for single, working women.

Rothstein has assembled an unusually fine supporting cast, whose members are shown off in a lovely version of "Who Will Buy," one of many "hits" in a score that also includes "Consider Yourself," "As Long As He Needs Me" and "Where Is Love." And, of course, there are the orphans, a couple dozen of whom are members of Minnesota Boychoir. Are they all proficient actors? No. Some were still a bit stiff on opening night but mention must be made of all-singing/all-dancing/all-astonishing Alejandro Vega, who's a tiny powerhouse. And, even when the youngsters on stage aren't quite nailing their performances, they have so much innate personality that it more than compensates.

The boys' effect on the show really hits home during a curtain-call reprise of "Consider Yourself," in which there are about 50 people on stage at once. This "Oliver" is a huge production, one that argues persuasively for the continuing relevance of a show that doesn't get revived often outside of high schools. And the attention Latte Da pays to suffering shouldn't make it sound like it's not a fun evening of theater, because it is. This "Oliver" may open with a scream but it ends the way you hope a musical will: with a knock-'em-dead song.