Theater Review - Twist leaves audiences hungry for less

The Alliance Theatre's Twist, a riff on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, bears the subtitle An American Musical. This could be to readily distinguish the new play from Oliver!, the beloved British musical which stormed stage and screen in the 1960s. Director/choreographer Debbie Allen, book writer William F. Brown, and Grammy-winning lyricist Tena Clark, who co-wrote the music with Gary Prim, transplant the Dickensian orphan from 1830s London to Prohibition-era New Orleans.

You can see why the creators would want to put a lot of daylight between Twist and Oliver!, rather than face unflattering comparisons with Lionel Bart's beloved musical. When Twist features a group of ragamuffins singing praise to "Meat on the Bone," flashbacks to "Food, Glorious Food!" are unavoidable, to Twist's detriment. But Twist's world premiere struggles with bigger problems, despite stupendous dance numbers and powerful voices.

Twist begins with not just a bang, but a rap-a-tap-tap with "Back By Demand" — an unqualified showstopper that the rest of the evening never matches. We meet the vaudeville tap-dancing duo Boston (Matthew Johnson) and Roosevelt (Jared Grimes) in a jubilant New Orleans performance, with Grimes in particular proving to be spectacularly athletic and graceful. Backstage afterward, however, the African-American twosome breaks up when Roosevelt leaves to elope with his pregnant white girlfriend Angela (Aijia Lise).

Roosevelt and Angela croon blandly about how "Love Lives in Everyone," and then disaster strikes. Next thing you know, Angela's goes into labor on the floor of a local orphanage, where the callous Miss Cotton (Shawna M. Hamic) sings "Breath and Push" until Angela gives birth to a plastic baby doll and dies on stage. Twist seems to consistently take the approach that Dickens' original story wasn't sentimental or manipulative enough. The likes of Oliver! and Les Miserables prove there's nothing wrong with melodrama in stage musicals, but Twist clumsily toys with its audience's emotions.

Nine years later, the child called Twist (Alaman Diadhiou) toils as the orphanage's "scrub-boy" and faces scorn for being a mulatto. Justly honored as a tap-dancing prodigy by Cookie magazine, Diadhiou's cuteness goes off the charts, although the play occasionally puts too much demand on his vocal abilities. Frequently, the show gives him soggy solos, including one number with the lyrical low point, "Why did God make me a color no one likes?" (Coincidentally, the last play on the Alliance's mainstage, Musical-Dramatic Arts Inc.'s I Dream, featured a young boy crooning a comparably schmaltzy tune about "Magic Shoes." What's next? A musical about puppies and kittens?)

Twist presents provocative images of America's racial legacy, including the murder of an African-American man by figures in Klu Klux Klan robes and the recurring motif of the boy being bought and sold. Twist's white uncle Lucius (an over-the-top Pat McRoberts) connives to find and kill Twist to secure an inheritance, and sings some of the show's worst lines: "What kind of family tree bears such fruit?/He's not worth a nickel, much less my loot!" The play's themes of biracial prejudice seem at odds with New Orleans' diverse cultural heritage, but if Twist intends to challenge the Crescent City's reputation for tolerance, the provocative notion peters out. The Alliance's Jelly's Last Jam delivered on a more nuanced, jazz-flavored version of New Orleans with even more inventive spectacle.

One gets the impression that Twist's creators picked New Orleans as a handy pretext for numbers built around jazz funerals, Fat Tuesday parades and even a voodoo dream. The Mardi Gras number "High Cotton" couldn't be more generic — it's like everything HBO's New Orleans drama "Treme" hated all at once — but admittedly includes clever outfits, including a Josephine Baker look-a-like and a reveler bouncing on stilts. As one expects from a big musical at the Alliance, Todd Rosenthal's set gorgeously emulates the curlicued balconies of the French Quarter, although Emilio Sosa's costumes make occasional missteps, like the eyesore color scheme of the young scofflaws.

Juke-joint singer Della (Olivia-Diane Joseph), Twist's equivalent to the original's nurturing saloon-gal Nancy, won jubilant opening night applause with every sustained climactic note. As the Fagin figure, Boston emerges not as a shadowy criminal but a dashing if morally conflicted bootlegger who strikes sparks with Della. Tracy Kennedy practically rejoices in the unalloyed villainy of flamboyant undertaker Crazah Chesterfield.

Allen's choreography impresses throughout Twist. It's always a pleasure to see Diadhiou tapping his heart out, and the orphans stunningly use wooden spoons like drumsticks in "Meet Off the Bone." That number provides an apt metaphor for Twist, a lavishly produced musical that presents some lovely bones, but precious little meat.

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