TwistAn American Musical
I'll admit to a certain amount of skepticism. It's a family musical, a re-imagining of "Oliver Twist" into the pre-Depression-Era American Southit sounds almost like a cross between Oliver! and Annie, and I didn't think I could take that many cute, singing orphans without a heavy dose of insulin. But the musical has three things going for it which pulled me over to its side.
You'll notice the first two nearly instantly: impressive choreography (courtesy of Debbie Allen, who also directed) and a cast that will give you everything they've got to keep you entertained. The musical's prologue is a performance piecewe meet the tap duo of Boston and Roosevelt (backed by a six-member tap ensemble) at a theatre in 1919 New Orleans. (Most of the main action takes place in 1928.) The song, "Back By Demand," starts out a bit rocky. The music doesn't lend it itself particularly easily to tap, and it's hard to follow the lyrics (a problem which plagues this show pretty much every time more than person is singinggroup enunciation isn't a strength). But once it gets moving, you really can't fault the skills on display (particularly from Jared Grimes as Roosevelt) or the way the choreography builds to a high energy climax. And if you think that's impressive, wait until you see the crazy athleticism of the youth ensemble, the brightly colored eye-popping activity of a Mardi Gras parade, or the voodoo-inspired ghostly nightmare dance. Resetting this thing in New Orleans certainly opens up all sorts of possibilities dance-wise, and Allen and her cast take full advantage.
The third thing that makes Twist worthwhile is that bookwriters William F. Brown and Tina Tippit have adapted the source material in some very clever and effective ways. The protagonist, ten-year-old Twist (the adorable Alaman Diadhiou), is a bi-racial child, conceived out of love in a time and place where that love was illegal and (as Twist's father unfortunately learned) could get you killed. It's actually a brilliant ideamodern audiences aren't as likely to be grabbed by the plight of a poor orphan (it's been done), but our hearts break for the sad-eyed child called an "abomination" by adults and hated by other children as "the unnatural result of a one-night stand."
Other smart moves are replacing Fagin's pickpocketing crew with a bunch of boys who run illegal hooch deliveries (remember, this is Prohibition) and replacing Fagin and Bill Sikes with a single character who is a charismatic leader to the boys, as well as a sometimes (verbally) abusive lover to the Nancy character, Della. (The fact that Della sings at the local Juke Joint is another 1920's New Orleans bonusbecause Tamyra Gray sure can sing.)
It doesn't all work. While the show's early scenes show Twist as the victim of an awful lot of racism, most of the musical seems to be approached in a color-blind manner. This is a bit problematic in a musical that has asked us to pay attention to race. Early on, Twist sings, "Why did God make me a color no one likes?" but for most of the musical, nobody seems to care. To be sure, the show's villain, Lucius, is an unrepentant racist (he starts the play in a white hood). But his plotting and scheming (with a black character) takes so many convoluted turns, he actually has to have a quick reprise of his defining song to remind us that he still hates Twist for purely racial reasons. Overall, while the adaptation is sharp and immediate in the first act, things get softer and sappier in the second. (It pretty much starts going wrong when Twist, for no real reason, breaks out into a someday-I'm -going-to-be-awesome number in court, when he's supposed to be terrified.) While Allen's choreography sparkles, her direction is a bit too busy for a family musicalsometimes, you have to look away from where the main action is in order to see something important to the plot, and this may end up confusing children. Tena Clark's lyrics, in general, are "cuts like a knife" trite. This innocent simplicity works for Twist's songs, but isn't enough for the adults. (Lucius has to sing the horribly awkward "There's nothing, for money, I would not do.") Music, by Tena Clark and Gary Prim, gets the job done in the moment, but is instantly forgettable.
And yet, the hard-working cast sells every number and wrings every laugh (and tear) out of this material, making it very hard not to enjoy the show. There was a boy sitting behind me enjoying his very first live theatre experience. I bet he'll come back.
TwistAn American Musical runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through July 17, 2011. For tickets and information, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
The Pasadena PlayhouseSheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Executive Directorin association with TAM Producing Partners, Skyline Pictures-Michelle Seward/Dror Soref, Willette Murphy Klausner, and Gary Goddard/Forbes Candlish, presents TwistAn American Musical. Book by William F. Brown & Tina Tippit; Lyrics by Tena Clark; Music by Tena Clark & Gary Prim. Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal; Costume Design by ESosa; Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Sound Design by Peter Fitzgerald; Casting by Stuart Howard, Amy Schecter, and Paul Hardt; Associate Producers Dee Dee Irwin and Victoria Watson; Press Representative Patty Onagan; Production Manager Joe Witt; Production Supervisor Alex Britton; Production Stage Manager David Blackwell; Executive Producer Forbes Candlish. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler; Music Direction & Vocal Arrangements by Jim Vukovich. Directed and Choreographed by Debbie Allen.