Yes, the words “Please sir, may I have some more?” take on a perverse new meaning when the riding crops, leather bodices, and stiletto heels come out. Yet this whirlwind trip through the seedier streets of Gay Old England suffers from a certain stodginess that belies its playful exterior: Half of this Philly Fringe import, which received a Drama Desk nomination for its previous New York engagement last season, is a daring romp through bondage bars, while the other half is a musty English lesson that could send one screaming to other Dickens musicals - like that one by Lionel Bart.
There’s no particular appeal here toward family-friendliness, though the show has an essential innocence that puts it right in line with both Bart’s Oliver! and the source novel. Twist (portrayed here by Reymundo Santiago) may enjoy the punishment he receives at the hands of, well, everyone, but he’s still a young, motherless man in search of a life worth living. The gang run by drag diva Fagin (Guadan) might have more overt rent-boy tendencies than is traditional, but it’s still a home for wayward souls like the Artful Dodger (Travis Morin) who need something to believe in and something to eat.
Director Sand has trouble maintaining the evening’s energy, which leaves a lot of the grittiness sputtering when it should spark; a handful of ballets, which Santiago choreographed to swirling perfection, do keep the show’s sexual charge at full. The score has got its share of soulful and spicy moments, with early solos by Twist and the Dodger about their personal fetishes making the sharpest impact, but becomes maudlin and predictable in its own right when it comes time for Fagin to sing about the virtues of clothing or Nancy about disappearing into the night. The show’s conceptual complexities don’t dig much deeper than the costumes.
The cast is very strong, though, tripped up mostly by their lack of projection and amplification that leaves many of Sand’s lyrics drowned out by the rock-tinged Leschen-San-Guadan melodies. Guadan is exceptional, bringing a much-needed violent vivacity (and a pierce-perfect singing voice) to Fagin and a sense of macabre comedy to early Oliver owner, Mr. Sowerberry. Santiago has the beguiling manner and elegant coiffure of Lara Flynn Boyle, and embodies all the right qualities of masculinity and femininity in constant struggle. There’s a bit of pretty-boy stiffness about Morin, but he has a brightness about him that the sullen and glowering Richman and Griffith lack.
There are times he seems ideal (if long-in-the-tooth) casting for that other Oliver Twist musical, so different is his style from that of his brooding castmates. But Morin, who also plays the torture-loving Bumble with a dash of gleefully broad buffoonery, proves that in a world of sadness and tragedy a bit of happiness isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. There’s more than a little joy to be found in watching Twist, though you can’t help but wish everyone involved had allowed themselves to feel it a bit more on their own, charmingly off-kilter terms.