"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.