Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
When Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theatre Latte Da first announced their “Broadway Re-Imagined” series two years ago, the idea was—as the name suggests—to re-imagine some of Broadway’s greatest hits in new and different ways. Last year’s Cabaret delivered on that promise to a degree that few people expected, making it one of the most talked-about shows of the year. And Cabaret’s success, in turn, lofted expectations for this year’s Oliver! (which opened Saturday) into the stratosphere. With director Peter Rothstein waving his magic wand, local favorite Bradley Greenwald playing the charismatic thief, Fagin, and Latte Da’s largest cast ever (including two dozen kids from Minnesota Boychoir), it seemed like the sort of production that, on paper, couldn’t miss.
Unfortunately, the best that can be said of this Oliver! is that it is a hit-and-miss affair, with the balance on opening night leaning toward misses. Yes, there were some technical glitches and opening-night jitters, but those can be fixed. Strangely, where this production comes up short is in the area where one would least expect it: in the re-imagination department.
This is surprising, to say the least. Director Peter Rothstein is a bonafide musical-theater genius, and his sure-handed guidance has yielded some of the most memorable shows in town of late, including the aforementioned Cabaret and last year’s Master Class, starring Sally Wingert as opera superstar Maria Callas. His creative team is packed with veterans, and he is employing some of the finest talent in town.
So what gives?
First, let me say that Broadway Re-Imagined is a great idea. Many Broadway productions—especially those that begin off-Broadway, like Rent—get more bloated and saccharine the more popular they get. As the productions get bigger and ostensibly “better,” something essential often gets lost, and that something is usually the beating artistic heart of the thing. In theory, shows presented under the Broadway Re-Imagined banner are supposed to reclaim some of this lost heart— to peel away the crust of conventions that surrounds these shows and reinvigorate them with more artistically adventurous and interesting ideas. The book and score are inherited, of course, but beyond that, the door is wide open for re-interpretation. Or at least it should be.
In these situations, directors often return to the original source material for inspiration—in this case, Charles Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist. The problem with most adaptations of Dickens’s stories is that they tend to romanticize the struggles and hardships of Victorian life, minimize the political animus behind Dickens’s writing, and combat the darkness at the heart of his novels with lots of sentimental drivel and plenty of song and dance. Since it was first produced in 1960, Oliver! has always been one of the most egregious offenders in this regard. The title alone, with that conspicuous exclamation mark, is a glaring oxymoron—a signal to all that this is “Dickens” with a wink and air quotes.
Rothstein certainly knows this, and said as much in pre-show discussions, in which he noted that recent adaptations of Oliver! have been “almost ‘twee,’ a little too cute. The original is actually quite a dark critique of capitalism and progress.” And by “progress,” he means the Industrial Revolution and its consequences, including the appropriation of the means of production (machines) by corporate oligarchs, the displacement of workers by said machines, the increasing social disparity between the rich and the poor, and the rampant use and abuse of child labor.
What’s striking about Dickens’s story is how forcefully those same themes are re-asserting themselves today. Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are displacing workers everywhere, the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, and the degree to which our society is abandoning children—from early childhood education to skyrocketing college tuition—is appalling. What a great parallel to explore!
Theatre Latte Da’s Oliver! starts off appearing as if it is indeed going to expose the Dickens's darker underbelly. The set is a steampunk wasteland of soulless machinery framed by the top half of a giant clock—because time is money! Before the first song, “Food, Glorious Food,” the children in the orphanage/workhouse trudge single-file wearing identical grey outfits and carrying buckets of coal—buckets that couldn’t be more symbolic if you stamped the words “Student Debt, Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment” on them.
Whatever power this scene might have had is erased, however, the moment Mr. Bumble (played by James Ramlet) the workhouse proprietor, appears. Bumble and the rest of the adults in the first half of the show are presented as cartoonish buffoons (no departure whatsoever from tradition), an unfortunate cue that nothing that happens from there on out needs to be taken seriously. Which would be fine if there were nothing serious going on, but there is: to wit—child exploitation, domestic violence, crushing poverty and, eventually, murder. The entire rest of the show feels trapped between this desire to flesh out Dickens’s darker themes without sacrificing the entertainment value of the show’s beloved songs and spectacle.
I know what you’re thinking: “Lighten up, dude, it’s just a musical!” Yes, it is. But the other factor dragging this show down is its paradoxical lack of spectacle. A few of the song-and-dance sequences—“Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Who Will Buy”—rise to the level of energy and dazzle you’d expect from a team like this, but most of the solos and non-ensemble numbers are somewhat listless, and there’s a disconcerting by-the-numbers quality to the whole production that makes it feel as if they’re just marching through the songs and plot for the sake of it—not with any clear purpose or intent.
Little of the show feels original. The steampunk set works to some degree, but the set never changes, so it gets old fast. The costumes are colorful and poverty chic, but they look like they came from the “Victorian” section of the Guthrie’s costume shop. And the musical arrangements, while ostensibly true to the original score, feel pared down to the point of being anemic. Bradley Greenwald is a charming and charismatic Fagin, and Alec Fisher is a delightful Artful Dodger, but they and everyone else in the cast is caught in the muddled middle, trying to squeeze some genuine drama out of what is essentially a silly, shallow musical that doesn’t leave much room for art or ideas.
To be fair, most productions of Oliver! solve this problem by dispensing with Dickens altogether and just serving up heaping helpings of cheerful song and dance. Theatre Latte Da should get some credit for at least trying to point the needle back toward Dickens, but that decision may also be the quicksand that is sucking this production down.
Not that this is a “bad” Oliver!, necessarily. If all you care about is some songs and a show, what you’re going to see is a perfectly competent, if uninspiring, version of a beloved (though overrated) Broadway musical. The trouble is, the higher Theatre Latte Da sets the bar for itself, the harder that bar is to reach. It may be Broadway Reimagined, but this Oliver! isn’t reimagined nearly enough to rescue it from itself or reach the heights that everyone, including me, had hoped.
Oliver! continues at The Pantages Theater through March 1, hennepintheatretrust.org