'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.