An ambitious production at the Pantages signals a new chapter for Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theater Latté Da.
Happy 2013. Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust leap into the new year with a production of "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida" that could redefine each company.
The Theatre Trust, mainly a presenter of touring Broadway shows, hopes to brand itself as a producer of local work. Latté Da assumes the challenge of filling a house that is more than three times larger than any theater in which the company previously has worked.
This ambitious effort, which opens Saturday at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, christens "Broadway Re-Imagined," an endeavor that banks on the artistic acumen of Latté Da director Peter Rothstein and the marketing muscle of Hennepin Trust. If "Aida" succeeds, Rothstein and trust president Tom Hoch envision annual productions and, potentially, tours.
"We have wanted to do this for a long time," said Hoch. "We think Peter is the right guy for this. He's great to work with and he keeps all the drama on stage."
Rothstein has assembled a cast that includes Austene Van in the title role, Chanhassen veteran Jared Oxborough as her doomed Egyptian lover Radames, and T. Mychael Rambo, Cat Brindisi, Ben Bakken and Nathan Barlow. Michael Matthew Ferrell, a frequent Latté Da collaborator, is choreographing and for the first time Joel Sass, who has a sharp scenic eye, has done the set design for Rothstein.
First things first, though. The Pantages, a lovely 1916 theater that was refurbished and reopened in 2002, has proven tough as a profitable venue. Repeated attempts to either transfer local shows or build new productions there have withered at the box office.
"Can we turn out the audience?" Hoch asked during a recent interview. "That's always the issue."
Yes and no. In the case of 2008's "Grease," it was about audience. Assumptions that a show that was a huge hit at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre would draw those fans downtown proved faulty. However, in 2003, cost overruns played a major role in the failure of Penumbra Theatre's "Black Nativity." Rehearsals were allowed to run overtime and labor costs skyrocketed. "Hair" in 2004 had a huge cast and even though it drew well, it did not break even.
Positive track record
Hoch has several reasons to consider "Aida" with cautious optimism. First, Rothstein's pre-Christmas staging of "All Is Calm" is the only show ever to post a profit in the Pantages. This year's six-performance run sold 5,373 tickets, or 90 percent capacity. Dovetailing with that, HTT's audience is familiar with downtown musical theater, and Hoch said "we can easily reach 250,000 people" through marketing machines.
Lastly, Rothstein's production sensibility comes out of small theater, which demands tight cost controls and meticulous planning.
"Peter totally understands that," Hoch said. "If we have to tell him we can't do certain things because of budget, that forces him to be magical. A big budget allows you to be sloppy."
Further, Latté Da's history indicates methodical growth, well-placed financial risks and artistic success. Five years ago, the company was producing in a 120-seat theater. Rothstein then targeted certain venues to gain exposure and audience growth -- the Ordway's McKnight Theatre and the Guthrie Studio being regular stops. Latté Da also did strategic partnerships, such as the "All Is Calm" production with HTT, a co-production of "Parade" with Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company that was staged in St. Paul's History Theatre, and last April's "Spring Awakening" with the University of Minnesota.
Still, "Aida" represents a considerable leap. Latté Da's biggest show ever, "Evita," sold 10,150 tickets at the McKnight. The ticket inventory for 19 performances of "Aida" at the Pantages will be nearly 19,000. Hoch estimates they will need to sell about 70 percent for success.
"My goal is to break even the first year," he said. "We can't afford to make any mistakes."
Rethinking the show
"Aida" has a checkered history. Panned on Broadway, it nonetheless ran for four years (a 2001 tour played the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis). A pastiche of competing musical and theatrical motifs, the show requires a strong vision.
John and Rice reinterpreted the doomed-love story, best known through Verdi's famous 1871 opera, with a rock/pop score that had nothing to do with ancient Egypt. Similarly, anachronisms fill the book, which was written by committee and resists cohesion. Two strangers meet in a modern museum, flip back to antiquity where they portray Aida and the Egyptian general Radames, and end up back in the museum.
Rothstein said he has chosen to embrace this ambiguity -- essentially removing the piece from the river of time. Costuming draws from contemporary dress and ancient Egyptian art; choreography switches from African ritual to modern music video posturing. The band, led by Jason Hansen, will be on stage, providing the flavor of a rock concert -- not unlike the aesthetic that animated "Spring Awakening."
"How do you make that contemporary sound fit the trappings of a show that is about a story in ancient Egypt?" Rothstein said. "It's the same way that Shakespeare is moved into modern settings."
Choreographer Ferrell said the mash-up of eras and styles allowed him greater freedom to let the show dance.
"I took traditional Nubian worship dance and infused it with a contemporary, lyrical style," he said. "The dance is so driven by emotion as opposed to technique, so this is a little different."
Hennepin Theatre Trust has been using its New Century Theatre aggressively in the past two years to forge a relationship with local companies. Last fall, Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool did their show "2 Sugars, Room for Cream," downtown. Frank Theatre used the space last year, and Minneapolis Musical Theatre recently signed on to do its 2013 season. The "Broadway Re-Imagined" partnership raises the stakes considerably. Hoch says the hope is for the program to become self-sustaining, and he and Rothstein are not shy about their goal of producing shows that could go out on tour -- both regionally and nationally. Exporting work, Hoch said, would reinforce the Twin Cities' theater reputation.
"Chicago moves stuff all the time, but that's just not the culture here," Rothstein said. "If we create things that could go on to other cities, we speak to more people and we get money flowing back into the production."
Rothstein measured his words when asked about this ambitious quest in the Pantages, a theater with a spotty track record.
"I'm always worried about ticket sales," he said. "I spend a ginormous amount of my time thinking about programming, what might work, what title would work in this venue or that one.
"Hennepin Trust has a great history with 'Lion King,' 'Joseph,' 'Mamma Mia' -- shows built on modern pop."
In three weeks, we will know whether to include "Aida" on that list.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299