Pasadena Playhouse calls Twist a new musical.
But the Prohibition era, New Orleans-set permutation of Oliver Twist actually has been in development since the ‘90s. Back then, I caught a promising fully staged version at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and was intrigued to see how it has evolved, now under the directorial/choreographic supervision of Debbie Allen.
Unfortunately, I’ll be leaving L.A. before the June 28 opening. With the permission from the Playhouse management, though, I’m breaking the usual critical rule of not commenting on a show in previews. (Unless it’s Spider-man, but that’s another story).
Because changes will continue to be incorporated through the opening, I’ll refrain from a full review and, instead, offer a notebook full of thoughts for a production with enormous audience appeal and potential for a long, healthy life.
Spoiler warning: Plot details are revealed in the following.
Not only does the rousing opener, “Back by Demand,” kick things off in high tap-dancing style, it also nicely sets key plot points and sends the clear message that, while there will be elements we remember from Oliver Twist and/or the musical Oliver!, there will be key differences as well. And terrific dance.
The charming Alaman Diadhiou, in the title role as an orphan child of a white woman and an African-American dancer, gets a strong entrance.
“Meat on the Bones” (one of the tunes I remember from the Philly production) nicely fuses the spirit of Annie’s “It’s the Hard-knock Life” with “Food Glorious Food” from Oliver! Again, smart choices, appealing performances, and terrific dancing/choreography.
Twist’s first number, “I Have a Soul,” is well performed, but the sentiments are too generically ambitious. Oliver
Twist’s appeal came in large part from his meekness. When a character arrives so fully enlightened, where is there to go?
Cleavant Derricks (from Broadway’s Dreamgirls and Big Deal) creates a strong character and is in great voice as funeral home director Crazah Chesterfield, but how necessary is the role?
A challenge of the piece is keeping it close enough, but not too close, to Oliver! And there are some smart adaption moves displayed here. Instead of a Bill Sikes character, we get Twist’s evil uncle Lucius. The Fagin character is now the handsome—but conflictedly criminal Boston—who has a relationship with Della (think Nancy), a woman who knows the secrets of Twist’s background.
An irate woman demands to know what’s being done about the long ladies room line. “For $10 million,” deadpans the usher, “We’ll renovate the whole building.”
With a judge doing shtick out of the Dean Martin Show playbook, another too-focused, Annie-like song by our kid hero (“gonna change the world/for every boy and girl”), and a drama-deadening chorus of unlikely supporters (“One day you’ll be/makin’ history”), an anything-goes courtroom scene destroys the tone built in the first act. And why end the scene with Twist being carried by his new benefactor when he isn’t tired or ill?
Twist gets his first look at photos of his late father and feels a connection without knowing who the man is. The father’s spirit appears and it looks like we are heading toward what could be a beautiful and powerful duet dance. But then the spirits of Al Jolson and Josephine Baker show up and the scene isn’t only ruined, it’s made vulgar (and I mean that in a ‘lacking good taste’ way).
We don’t get the equivalent of the Oliver! co-dependent classic “As Long as He Needs Me” in Twist. But in the desire to make Della strong, her willingness to go along with Boston’s plan to kidnap Twist is difficult to buy.
The expected big Mardi Gras number shows off the company well. Here and elsewhere, Debbie Allen smartly knows how to end a dance piece.
Tamyra Gray exercises her American Idol-trained skills with Twist’s anthem “Reach for the Sky.” But an inspirational song loses dramatic impact if it’s being sung to someone already inspired. And too much is going on too quickly for what seems to be intended as a “You’ll Never Walk Alone” ending.
Smart, smart move to turn the curtain call into a killer tap number.
Just remember: Any or all of this could change by opening night.
The Pasadena Playhouse presents Twist, through July 17. Book by William F. Brown and Tina Tippit, lyrics by Tena Clark, music by Tena Clark and Gary Prim, directed by Debbie Allen. Details at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.