Apparently, Charles Dickens is to be blamed for any show about a mistreated orphan. Move the locale of “Oliver Twist” from London to New Orleans, the time from the mid-19th century to the Prohibition ’20s, throw in some voodoo and divide all the other famous characters into nearly indistinct roles, substitute racial problems for class problems and confuse the narrative almost beyond intelligibility, but call the little boy “Twist,” you can still call this a musical version of the novel. Dickens might well be singing the show’s first song, “Why Me?”The big-name talent here turns out to be mostly window-dressing: Andrea McArdle sings part of one song in the prologue and then her character — Twist’s white mother — dies. She reappears as an angel (having had her hair done in Heaven) and sings another song, and that’s it until the final curtain.
Gregg Burge also sings in the prologue and then his character — Twist’s black father — dies, reappearing for one song and a spectacular tap dance late in Act 2. Ron Richardson sticks around (is he Fagin or Bill Sykes?), but although the power of his voice is there, the pitch seems to have vanished. Adrian Bailey has a small, cliched role as a Conjure Man, bedecked with a fang necklace; the second of his two songs, “We Must Have Been in Love,” is quite lovely, although it makes sentimental nonsense of his character (is he Fagin or Bill Sykes? — well, he’s somebody who’s mean and greedy).
The show is enlivened every time Larry Marshall stylishly appears; he is the only one of the cast who creates (despite his lines) a convincing character. He’s an undertaker (is he Fagin?) who sings “Death Is Alive and Well,” a song that needs to be wittier. Seven-year-old Tahj Mowry is tiny and cute, Marva Hicks wails out a terrific “Reach for the Sky,” and everybody else does the best they can given the messy book and flimsy songs.
With lyrics like the ungrammatical “There’s a better place waiting for you and I,” and the drippy “Little angel dry your tears/Mama’s come to take away your fears,” and with the hand-mikes often out of control, what can they do? Tony Christopher seems to believe — judging by his touring “Jesus Christ Superstar” as well as “Twist”– that volume K intensity.
The static, disorganized choreography wastes some high-energy dancers, and much of the blocking depends on people fake-chasing each other. “Twist’s” weakness is as surprising as it is dreary.