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a Musical
by William F. Brown; Composer and Lyricist Tena Clark

VENUE : 14th Street Playhouse [WEBSITE]
ID# 3794

SHOWING : September 01, 2010 - October 03, 2010



Twist is new American musical, inspired by the Dickensí classic Oliver Twist, set in New Orleans in 1928. There, while the Roaring 20s dance their way down Bourbon Street, an orphan in search of home finds family in the most unexpected of places. Twist is the story of the emotional struggle of an orphan, whose father was a black song-and-dance man and whose mother was a southern white aristocrat, seeking a place to belong and a family to love while guided by a fierce yearning for home.

Cast Matt Johnson
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A New Twist on Dickens
by playgoer
Saturday, September 25, 2010
The Alliance Theatre is hosting a fine musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist." Dickens' novels tend to be episodic and full of incident and colorful characters, so the challenge in dramatizing one of his works is to trim and focus. Book author William F. Brown has done a good job of this, while adapting the story to work in Prohibition-era New Orleans.

In the terms of the character Twist, the emotional arc is the same in "Twist" as it was in "Oliver!" The same incidents happen to this innocent, put-upon orphan boy, but the details have changed. Twist is named off-handedly by a girl present at his birth, since a twister has supposedly just been nearby. We don't see any sign of the twister, so the naming is pretty perfunctory. It's one of many moments that don't resonate the way they could or should to ensure future success.

One of the best ideas in the adaptation is the introduction of a villain. In Dickens, Oliver Twist is mistreated and/or taken advantage of by a number of people (Mr. Bumble, undertaker Sowerberry, Bill Sykes, Fagin), none of whom run throughout the novel as a principal personage. In "Twist," the character of Lucius Thatcher exists. He is the bigoted brother of Twist's white mother, Angela. He kills Twist's black father, then later attempts to find and do away with Twist when Lucius' own inheritance is gone and he wants to dip into his dead sister's estate, but is not allowed by lawyer Prudhomme when the question of Angela's progeny is unresolved. This villain is played strongly by Pat McRoberts, and he provides one of the throughlines in the show.

Another throughline is the character of Della. She is the teenager who names Twist, rifles through his dead mother's purse, and runs away to live on the streets. She is later seen as a nightclub singer, who basically turns into the Nancy character from Dickens. Olivia-Diane Joseph does a fine job in the role, though she isn't totally memorable between first and second appearances.

A third throughline is the character of Boston. He is the less-talented vaudeville dance partner of Twist's father, Roosevelt, who is played and spectacularly danced in the opening number by the dynamic Jared Grimes. Matthew Johnson, as Boston, provides more solidity than flash in his performance. Boston appears next as the Fagin character, acting as the den father for a group of underage rum-runners. He also takes on the characteristics of Bill Sykes, providing the abusive love interest for Della, but he has a last-minute conversion that is supposed to make us forget his handshake with Lucius Thatcher as "Partners in Crime" in abducting Twist.

I think he also needs a handshake at the end with Mr. Prudhomme (the amiable, full-voiced E. Wade Benson), who has provided the only source of stability in Twist's existence, and who has been shown to be a trustworthy financial steward. Mr. Prudhomme, while white, is established as a devotee of show business, so he pops up to enjoy Della singing and at various other times. He also houses Twist for a time. He's someone we have been groomed to accept as a "good guy," so I think it's important that any other "good guy" in the story be seen as allied with him.

If the show's final moment isn't totally satisfying, the act one ending seems delayed. We see an active French Quarter scene in which novice rum-runner apprentice Twist is captured by the police, then sit through a dramatic scene between Della and Boston. If the stakes were raised higher before Twist's capture, the capture would end the first act with a bang. Twist is the title character, so the most memorable points in the show should involve him directly.

A point in the musical that seems abbreviated is the act two "High Cotton" and Mardi Gras scene. Mr. Prudhomme and Twist give a rousing rendition of the catchy cakewalk "High Cotton," then head to the Mardi Gras, which is filled with colorfully garbed revelers moving to a new musical theme. The number needs a vocal reprise before the revelers wander off. It reminded me of the African dance number in "The Color Purple," whose great promise was not fully realized in its Alliance debut.

The action purportedly takes place primarily in 1928. A couple of anachronisms occur. At one point, Della uses the phrase "that's a crock," which sounds shockingly out of place. In an act two ensemble number, two backup dancers on a platform appear in dresses whose style invokes the 50's more than the 20's. They may look period up close, but from a distance they don't have the low-waisted lines of a flapper outfit. Otherwise, the costumes by Emilio Sosa are fine.

The dances by Debbie Allen are full of activity, but I found them disappointing in the aggregate. There was a LOT of spinning and a LOT of tumbling. Some of this was probably targeted at members of the youth ensemble, who largely come from her dance academy in Los Angeles. The group of young ragamuffins isn't given the prominence in this show that they have in "Oliver!," so the simplified movements could have been restricted to them without trouble. Instead, their dance moves were pretty much indistiguishable from others in the show.

I was disappointed by the music in act one. This was partly the fault of sound designer Peter Fitzgerald, who pumped up the amplification to the point of muddiness. At points throughout the show, people in the audience were seen plugging their ears with their fingers to withstand the aural onslaught. "Back by Demand," the frenetic opening number, had lyrics only occasionally understandable. The softer second number, "Love Lives in Everyone," had understandable lyrics, but they came across as trite. "Love is the universal song?" Pretty bland for an interracial couple about to flee up north. The music of it didn't draw me in either. In act two, when I found myself enjoying the musical numbers as they unfolded, I started wondering what other song could be retooled for the second spot in the show. Then, lo and behold, the finale of the show ended with "Love is the universal song." It worked there, but its weakness in act one means it probably wouldn't be missed if it were removed from the show altogether.

"Twist" contains a lot of colorful characters, just as the Dickens novel does. Particular standouts were the strong-lunged Tracy Kennedy as Crazah Chesterfield, the funeral parlor operator who "buys" Twist for a couple of bucks to be a funeral dancer, and Kyle Garvin, as his put-upon, rubber-boned assistant Skillet. Both brought a lot of presence to their roles.

The set, designed by Todd Rosenthal, was functional, but not overwhelmingly effective. Its finest feature was a wall of photos of black performers in the house of Mr. Prudhomme. Otherwise, it stayed in the background, as a set should. This being the Alliance, sets were often multiple stories. The French Quarter balconies were even three stories tall, providing lots of vertical playing space.

Is "Twist" ready for Broadway? I think it's closer than "Aida: Elaborate Lives" was when it played the Alliance, and marginally less ready than "The Color Purple." It's a good, crowd-pleasing show that adds a racial overlay to Dickens' "Oliver Twist." With a few tweaks, it should be a hit with families wherever it goes next. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Wrong venue, wrong company
by bellsplayer
Friday, September 10, 2010
This show is playing at the Alliance, and is the best show I've ever seen at the Alliance. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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