Slowly it builds. Two years ago Hennepin Theatre Trust (HTT) and Theater Latté Da made the leap into producing a Broadway-style musical once a year in the Pantages Theatre. They started with “Aida,” and then last year captured lightning in a jar with “Cabaret.”
This weekend, the two companies launch “Oliver!” (apparently one-word titles are a must) with optimism that their experiment in big-stage collaborations has gained traction.
“As great as touring Broadway can be, you get to use local talent in these shows,” said Tom Hoch, president of HTT. “Every time we mount one of these, we learn five new things about how to cut costs, or drive audience, how to market.”
Peter Rothstein, Latté Da’s artistic director, is putting 38 kids and 12 adults on stage — his largest-ever local staging.
“That’s a success,” Rothstein said of the production’s size. “People want their money to go to artists as much as possible, and this pays actors, designers, stagehands and musicians for their work.”
“Cabaret” last year sold 17,000 tickets, 85 percent capacity over 20 shows at the 1,000-seat Pantages — a success by any benchmark. “Oliver!” will try to match or exceed those totals. The partnership allows Latté Da to punch above its weight because of HTT’s marketing and promotional muscle.
The budget for “Oliver!” will be about $500,000 — definitely toward the larger end in local productions. The Ordway Center stages big-budget local shows sporadically (although there is a bigger commitment this year) and the Guthrie has used lots of local talent to fuel recent summer musicals.
“It’s part of the arts economy that makes us a creative city,” Rothstein said.
Of course, audiences probably don’t care about budgets and backstage machinations. They put their money down to see a show.
Rothstein said he’s never produced Charles Dickens’ work, although he was deeply affected as he watched PBS’ mammoth “Nicholas Nickleby” production from the late 1970s.
He still has all nine hours on VHS (which he can watch on an out-of-date TV).
“The theatricality of it blew my mind,” he said.
“Oliver!” is based on the writer’s second novel, about an orphan who navigates the grinding substrata of the English Industrial Revolution.
It is classic Dickens in its unsparing portrait of Victorian society. Young Oliver Twist shuffles from workhouse to undertaker and eventually the stinking streets of London, where he falls in with the Artful Dodger and criminal father figure Fagin.
“What I love about this story is that it’s as simple as a little kid who believes he wants more in the world and instigates change,” Rothstein said. “The story is about how urban culture denies the needs of its children.”
He noted a resonance today with the digital and technology revolutions that threaten to leave whole classes of people behind.
“What’s the cost of advancement, and who does that serve?” he said.
Bradley Greenwald, who portrays Fagin, said that even though Dickens created villains, the Latté Da production hopes to find moments of grace.
“The miracle of Dickens is that even though he exposed the horrors that lived down those grimy alleys, he revealed the humanity in each of them,” he said. “He showed us that these were human beings with fate and circumstance thrust upon them, and their actions were not that much different from the despicable behavior of some people in the upper classes.”
The most famous line has Oliver asking, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” His stuffy overseers are astonished that the cheeky lad would dare ask for more gruel.
Lionel Bart wrote the book and the score for the musical, which opened in 1960 in London and moved to Broadway three years later. “Food, Glorious Food” and “Consider Yourself” are two of Bart’s best songs in the show.
The script, Rothstein said, is almost an outline that relies on performers, the choreographer and the director to sketch in details of movement and scene. Greenwald has been taking magic lessons to work on his sleight of hand as the skilled pickpocket Fagin.
“With some more practice, I think even this old dog will be able to perform some new tricks,” Greenwald said.
Rothstein’s production includes Latté Da favorite Dieter Bierbrauer (“Company”) as the vicious Bill Sikes, newcomer Nate Turcotte as Oliver and Lauren Davis as the street prostitute Nancy. Twenty-eight members of the Minnesota Boychoir are used in the workhouse scenes, and a gaggle of lads will make up Fagin’s retinue.
The mission of these Latté Da-HTT productions is to re-imagine familiar shows. Here, Rothstein is using a steampunk aesthetic, which introduces futuristic notions into the Victorian era.
“Steampunk fashion often employs machinery as accessories, which provided us the opportunity to reflect Dickens’ discerning view of industrialization and its impact on the human condition,” he said.
Ivey winner Michael Matthew Ferrell returns to choreograph, and Denise Prosek — whose work rarely receives the recognition it is due — is Latté Da’s resident music director.
HTT’s Hoch sees the annual collaboration with Latté Da as part of the plan for invigorating the Hennepin Avenue arts corridor, which runs from the Walker Art Center to the Mississippi River.
“The theater district is a key part of that, weaving it all together,” he said.