Also see Sharon's review of Atlanta
But what makes Twist more than just another goofy gay, S&M, drag, gender-bending, fetishist romp (yeah, it's all in there) is a surprisingly solid grounding in the spirit of the Dickens original. Because, right after Oliver's over-the-top whipping session, he delivers a soft ballad, earnestly questioning why he's so different from the other boys and coming to the tragic realization that being mistreated is simply "what I know." Twist even follows Oliver from the workhouse to his stint working for Sowerberry the undertaker, where he is again mistreated - until something in the back of the audience's mind clicks and recognizes that it isn't that far outside the realm of possibility that someone as beaten down as Dickens' Oliver might eventually come to accept - and ultimately enjoy - that sort of treatment, simply as a defense mechanism.
Of course, once Twist establishes its legitimacy, it is off and running into its exploration of different ways of achieving pleasure. But the core - the sad youth who says "It's what I know" - is never too far from the surface of this Oliver. Brandon Ruckdashel plays him (here called Twist) with a simple earnest innocence. Even though the sort of thing that makes his face light up with joy isn't what most would call "innocent," Ruckdashel's Twist is basically just looking for a place where he can feel safe. And putting that sort of heart into the piece, from beginning to end, grounds the entire production.
That said, you're probably there for the fun - which is a bit hit and miss with this production. On the plus side, you've got Matt Stevens who delights in being the evil Mr. Bumble; Kelly Roberts, who plays Sowerberry as a man who converses with a skull hand puppet; and the scenery-chewing - er, scenery-licking Alexandra Billings, whose Fagin is ... OK, here's the thing. In earlier productions of Twist, Fagin was played by a man, and Fagin's drag queen tendencies (highlighted in the big second act "Clothing Makes The Man" number) were, one supposes, a comic hit. Putting a woman in the role loses something - Fagin's cross-dressing doesn't come off as particularly excessive when you're watching a woman in a gown. Ms. Billings, however, is a well-known transgendered actress, thereby bringing to the table the fairly remarkable circumstance of a transgendered woman playing a guy who likes to dress up in women's clothing. Certainly, even without reference to Billings's background, she presents a delightful Fagin; fiery-tempered, possessive, sexually-charged and with a powerful singing voice, she steals every scene she's in. But Fagin's passion for cross-dressing doesn't really connect until you realize the extra layer involved in a transgendered woman singing "Clothing Makes The Man."
Not all the gang is as successful. Billy Thompson, in drag as the workhouse Matron, tries too hard to wring laughs out of a minor role by screeching his lines much too loudly - a type of comic attack that doesn't fit well with the rest of the piece. (Twist's occasional intentional mispronunciation of "Fagin" is also cheap and unfunny.) Chris Carlisle plays Dodger, who, all grown up, is now Fagin's partner. He's still in the pickpocket business, but now it seems he cleans people out after performing certain ... personal services for them. Dodger is also obsessed with candy, and always keeps a lollipop close at hand (you don't have to be Freud to figure that one out). Carlisle gives a charismatic performance, although his singing voice doesn't always seem a good fit for this material, and he's not fast enough on his double-take lines ("You can stay on my face as long as you'd like" is quickly replaced with "You can stay at my place, just for the night").
Indeed, pacing is probably the biggest problem with this production. Director Paul Storiale has nothing in his bag of tricks for scene changes, resulting in each and every scene ending with a long blackout (sometimes with music, sometimes dead silence) while the next one is set up. The blackouts completely stop the action of the show and prevent any sort of build (dramatic, comic, or otherwise). They're particularly devastating in the second act, when the show is completely bogged down in a sequence of book scenes, as Twist tries to escape from Fagin. But it isn't only the set changes that slow things down; Twist has a couple of dance numbers that also have little effect. Matt Valle's choreography is not particularly impressive on its own, and the execution here does not move to show any closer to achieving its dramatic, comic or erotic goals.
With Twist's surprising emotional honesty combined with its sexual take on the material, there's definitely potential for some solid entertainment here. But in this production, not nearly as much connects as it should.
Twist runs at the Avery Schreiber Theatre in North Hollywood through December 30, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.themusicaltwist.com.
Twist. Book and Lyrics by Gila Sand. Music by Paul Leschen, with Gila Sand. Additional Music by Garrit Guadan. Director Paul Storiale; Producer Paul Storiale; Producer Angela Nicholas; Musical Director Russell Kieffer; Stage Manager Tristyn Curtiss; Choreographer Matt Valle; Costumes A.M. Bartolomeo; Set Design A.M. Bartolomeo; Set Design Paul Storiale; Poster Design Amy Texter; Publicity Nora Feldman; Lights and Sound Cory Price; Lighting Design Brent Logan; ‘Charlotte' Puppet Jonathan Kidder; Program Tristyn Curtiss.