By Manning Harris
The press release for the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere of “Twist” says that “an illustrious group of seasoned entertainment industry leaders have collaborated in creating a new American musical for the stage.” And there’s no denying it: many of the creative team have won or been nominated for Tonys (William F. Brown, book; and Harold Wheeler, orchestration); Grammys (Tena Clark, composer/lyricist), or Golden Globes and Emmys (Debbie Allen, director/choreographer).
And it’s very impressive that several Broadway shows got their start at the Alliance: “Aida,” “The Color Purple,” and “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.” All of these shows were tweaked and doctored and finally made it to Broadway, and it looks as if that may be the plan with “Twist,” based loosely on Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel “Oliver Twist” and running at the Alliance through October 3. Even though it’s a lavish production with many fine singers, actors, and dancers, it’s not quite ready for New York.
Debbie Allen says in the program notes that “the storytelling (in “Twist”) totally transcends Dickens and the time frame makes it culturally so relevant.” What the time frame does is plop the story into 1920’s New Orleans; then it invests the plot with ominous racial overtones (complete with a Ku Klux Klan murder, mercifully not shown); so a story which was already a social critique of Britain’s Poor Laws, child labor, and the careless treatment of orphans becomes top heavy with Important Social Issues (Oliver, here called Twist, is now a mulatto, unloved by almost everyone). Finally, the much-loved Academy Award-winning 1968 musical “Oliver!” is a ghost that hovers in the wings.
Miraculously, “Twist” works much better than you would think. Much of its success is planted squarely on the 10-year-old shoulders of a beautiful child named Alaman Diadhiou, who plays the title role with wit and poignance far beyond his years, singing, dancing, and acting with the aplomb of a seasoned pro. The show opens with a standout number (“Back By Demand”), performed by Boston (Matthew Johnson) and Roosevelt (Jared Grimes). Roosevelt must then take off, for he has a pregnant white girlfriend (Aijia Lise), a dicey situation even in easygoing Prohibition New Orleans.
Boston’s girlfriend is Della (Olivia-Diane Joseph); both she and Mr. Johnson have fine, powerful singing voices in a show that is full of rich sound (the orchestra is lovely—rare to have a full orchestra these days—even on Broadway). Twist (the boy) has an evil white uncle (Pat McRoberts) and a kind benefactor (E.Wade Benson), both well played. Boston’s gang of boys dance superbly in a crackerjack number (“Meat on the Bones”), and Tracy Kennedy almost steals the show as Crazah Chesterfield, a deliciously manic undertaker (“Death Is Alive and Well”) whom I think Dickens himself (remember him?) would approve.
Since there will be changes, I would venture a tweak myself: Start Act II with “High Cotton,” a rousing Mardi Gras number. This is a huge show, almost two hours and 45 minutes, and there are too many snazzy numbers and tender moments to describe. By the way, there’s a spectacular set design by Todd Rosenthal. A tweaked “Twist” could end up on Broadway; you never know. So praise the Lord and public domain and go see it.