Friday, June 24, 2011

review - TWIST

book by William F. Brown & Tina Tippit
lyrics by Tena Clark; music by Tena Clark & Gary Prim
directed & choreographed by Debbie Allen
Pasadena Playhouse
through July 17
(photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

There have been several musical plays based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. The first and biggest hit was  Lionel Bart's Oliver, which went on to a major film in 1968 and a multitude of Oscars. There has been a gay version as well, also titled Twist, that was nominated for Critics' prizes in New York, and now there's the interracially cast adaptation Twist in its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. From top to bottom the show is slick and a triumph for director/choreographer Debbie Allen. The cast is fine-tuned, and much of the music quite memorably singable. Its only flaw, for purists like me, is in the book, which does not include the charming Fagin, whose deliciously mischievous manipulation of everybody in Oliver Twist is a major highlight.

Fagin made Oliver a delight and without him, Twist becomes a show completely separate from Oliver - its subtitle is An American Musical - with a distinctly original perspective. And that is by no means a bad thing! What takes precedence in Twist is the atrocity of racism along with the abject poverty of 1920s New Orleans. The boy named Twister (Alaman Diadhiou) is the product of a white mother and black father, dancing star Roosevelt King. The mulato child travels the same route as the original Oliver from orphanage to funeral parlor to the streets, but guided by a somewhat different set of circumstances. He is bought for a cheap $2 by funeral director Crazah Chesterfield (Cleavant Derricks) to dance at funerals, and when he runs away and hits the streets, it is not to pick pockets but to bootleg liquor in the guise of medicine. A wealthy lawyer Mr. Prudhomme (Cliff Bemis) offers him protection until Della (Tamyra Gray), once a nurse at the orphanage where Twist was born and now a singer, takes him under her wing. Boyfriend Boston, the bootlegger that Twist works for (Matthew Johnson) is torn between his allegiance to Twist's father (his former dancing partner) and Twist's white Uncle Lucius (Pat McRoberts), a scoundrel who offers Boston a thousand dollars to abduct Twist for his own viciously selfish reasons. Boston is patterned after Bill Sikes of the original Oliver and Della after Nancy. The violently tragic finale with the ironically happy outcome for Twist is also similar to Oliver's ending.
The cast are all vibrantly alive. Diadhiou is a real find, a triple threat who is bound to find much success in musical theatre. He is sweet, intelligent and sings and dances beautifully. Gray is dynamically alluring as Della. Johnson, Bemis, Derricks and McRoberts all have their shining moments. Diane Delano is a scene stealer as the drunken Miss Cotton and judge, and the entire chorus of urchins sing and dance with superior precision under Allen's brilliant direction. In the original storyline of Oliver, the gang of boys were a bit tougher by nature; these kids are less threatening, more naturally playful. In Twist's book, I would rather see more of an edge from them, but their singing and dancing cannot be faulted. The set design by Todd Rosenthal using the theatre's brick walls and gratings for stairs and bridge works very well, giving the flavor of old New Orleans.

Twist is an entertaining production that will be appreciated on its own terms. Music by Tena Clark and Gary Prim is winning. The charm of New Orleans, the Mardi Gras and its ambiance bring fresh color to the piece. There's enough merit here to get the show to Broadway. Those who want Fagin and his shenanigans, will just have to rent the dvd of Oliver or reread Oliver Twist.

4 out of 5 stars

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