For one thing (and probably the main thing), the plotting plodded, particularly in act one. On a dark and stormy night, there is a knock at the workhouse door, and a baby is discovered on the doorstep. The note attached says that the baby's name is Twist, Oliver, but he is called only Twist. As he grows into a young man, Twist (Jacob Caltrider) discovers that he rather looks forward to the beatings that are regularly provided by Mr. Bumble (Tony Houck), the local Beadle. But, Twist's eagerness is not appreciated, and he is summarily tossed out of the workhouse into a dark world of prostitutes and pickpockets. It takes a while to get to this point in the story, which seems weighty and generally quite serious about the sado-masochistic proclivities of the characters.
The plot brightens once Twist is out of the workhouse, but it is laborious enough that storylines still are confused at times. On the streets, he meets the flirtatious Artful Dodger (Tom Zohar), and things begin to get sexy. The Dodger lives in an S&M community presided over by Fagin (David McBean), who might best be described as a male dominatrix. Twist, a malleable young man, discovers that he not only has found a place where his physical desires might be fulfilled, but that he also finds the Dodger's sexual charisma to be appealing. Dodger finds that he is genuinely attracted to Twist, and not just for his masochistic desires.
But, Fagin's demand is not only for obedience but for money, and he runs a prostitution and thievery ring to fulfill those demands. The Dodger starts to show Twist the ins and outs of petty theft, but their first heist goes sour, and its intended victim, Lady Downlow (Jackie Cuccaro), rescues Twist from the grip of the local Constable (Andy Collins). Taking him back to her estate, Lady Downlow is delighted to find that Twist not only shares her interest in women's shoes but is also quite content to be dressed in women's lingerie.
Fagin, worried that Twist will disclose his operation to the authorities, has Twist snatched and returned to his control. Nancy (Amy Northcutt), one of Fagin's prostitutes, goes to tell Lady Downlow where Twist has gone, and Bill Sikes (Scott Striegel), one of Fagin's lieutenants, slits her throat for her trouble. The Artful Dodger realizes that he has been in love with Twist all along and sacrifices himself to police arrest so that Twist can go back to Lady Downlow.
If you're wondering whether Twist is a tragedy, a farce, a social commentary or something else, you'd be right in doing so. On the one hand, the show seems to want to be a knowingly camp version of a classic story, but it's not nearly exaggerated enough to produce the kind of shocked laughter that is necessary to make such an approach work. On the other hand, all of the S&M posturing dulls the social commentary, and throws big monkey wrenches into the plot. The songs don't help, either, as some of them seem serious while others go for parody and black humor.
All is not bleak, however. There are several pleasures to be had from this production. Primary among them is the opportunity to see two of San Diego's most talented young actors, Mssrs. McBean and Zohar, work together. They don't get to play scenes with each other very often, but when they do, sparks fly. Mr. Caltrider has just the right boyish, innocent but a bit naughty, presence for the leading character, and he exhibits a clear and lilting high tenor voice. While the rest of the cast is variable in quality (and Mr. Houck is just downright miscast as Mr. Bumble), it produces a fine choral sound when called for (credit Music Director Tim McKnight for excellent preparation). Director James Vasquez creates some stylish stage pictures, and his musical staging enlivens the proceedings, but he is hampered by a set (designed by Kristin Ellert) that provides awkward playing spaces and forces some strange entrances and exits.
Twist seems to be a work that is still in development, and the creative team (book and lyrics by Gila Sand, music by Paul Leschen with Gila Sand and additional music by Garrit Guadan) is present to gauge audience reaction and make revisions. I'd suggest that they decide what they want the show to be (campy gay parody works for meand the current sex quotient isn't nearly high enough for that genre) and make adjustments to bring out those elements.
Diversionary Theatre presents Twist Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00pm through August 9. Tickets: $31-$35 (some discounts available). Box office: (619) 229-0097, or online at Diversionary's website.
Twist, book and lyrics by Gila Sand, music by Paul Leschen with Gila Sand and additional music by Garrit Guadan. Directed by and musical staging by James Vasquez, musical direction by Tim McKnight. Set design by Kristin Ellert, costume design by Jeannie Galioto, lighting design by Stephen Sakowski, wig design by Peter Herman. With Jacob Caltrider (Twist), Andy Collins (Mr. Sowerberry, Constable), Jackie Cuccaro (Mrs. Sowerberry, Lady Downlow), Tony Houck (Mr. Bumble, Charlie Bates), Jimmy Latimer, Jr. (Weasel, Ensemble), David McBean (Matron, Fagin), Amy Northcutt (Nancy, Ensemble), Scott Striegel (Noah Claypool, Bill Sikes), and Tom Zohar (The Artful Dodger, Ensemble).