Two hours into “Twist: An American Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse, a hot, jazz-lickin’ “High Cotton” segues into an ebullient Mardi Gras parade, belatedly hinting how splendid a racially sensitive, 1920s New Orleans “Oliver Twist” could be if all concerned would only get their crews together. Incidental pleasures and at least one sensational perf can’t overcome the story problems and a score veering too often into radio-ready pop blandness. “Twist” could yet triumph if helmer-choreographer Debbie Allen permits it to stay true to its roots.
Many of the Dickens variations are promising. Presenting orphan “Twist” as the issue of a white debutante and lynched black cabaret star Roosevelt King (ball of fire Jared Grimes) easily taps into the original’s social indignation, in an historical setting properly seething with animus and fear. And as spectacularly portrayed by the prodigy Alaman Diadhiou, with his solid pipes and unspoiled, graceful acting style, our hero garners all the audience sympathy the yarn could demand. (Young Coco Monroe replaces Diadhiou on certain dates.)
The racial angle prompts librettists William F. Brown (“The Wiz”) and Tina Tippitt to invent a villain in the person of bigoted, dissolute uncle Lucius (Pat McRoberts), intent on removing the youthful obstacle to his family inheritance. Though McRoberts’ appallingly mannered performance is too clearly modeled on Inspector Javert in “Les Miz,” and the character doesn’t yet receive a proper comeuppance, its lust for power and heavy-handed coincidences are Dickensian enough.
But conflating Fagin and Bill Sykes into one romantic antihero proves disastrous. Ex-hoofer Boston (Matthew Johnson) gave up performing when partner Roosevelt left, and now operates as a bootlegger out of the Jewel Box cabaret with an urchin distribution army, except the club is scheduled for demolition, but maybe he can sell Twist to Lucius for a grand, except he’s really not such a bad guy or is he? Suffice to say the unplayable role makes no sense from start to finish.
The hamstrung plot constantly gets itself into twists as Boston and best girl Della (a charming Tamyra Gray as the show’s Nancy surrogate) fight for incomprehensible reasons, the text and Tena Clark’s lyrics rarely even listening to each other. (“For a thousan’ dollah, I’d lead m’sel’f to slaughter!” he trumpets, though four lines later he’s singing “Money can’t buy happiness.”)
Tuner’s narrative continues to defeat a reported three decades of development, though the right dramaturge could surely smooth it over eventually. More problematic is the schizoid score. A musical gumbo of jazz, blues and Zydeco would seem to offer more than enough inspiration, but Clark and co-composer Gary Prim keep walking with empty bowl in hand to the Jackson Five and Lionel Richie saying, “Please sir, I want some more.”
Della’s sizzling “Fried” wouldn’t be out of place in Ethel Waters’ repertoire. But oversung anthems like “Reach for the Sky” and “I Thought You Would Never Know” wrench us out of period with their banal self-assertion pieties (“Spread your wings and fly”), and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations too infrequently respect time or place, more Nelson Riddle than Satchmo. Why bother to set a tale in bygone New Orleans if all that’s desired is “Twist: An American Idol Musical”?
Allen’s spirited, robust dances don’t always serve the story. Having assembled a refreshingly natural ensemble of gifted urchins, she has them sell “Meat on the Bones” and “Be Quick” with the mindless pizzazz of Dean Martin’s Golddiggers. When she infuses those numbers, and all of the kids’ scenes, with genuine hunger and need as well as narrative clarity, they’ll work better for her.
She’d also be wise to find more for crowdpleaser Cleavant Derricks to do as Crazah, the equivalent of Dickens’ undertaker Sowerberry who’s utterly absent from act two. Derricks would make a most appealing Fagin surrogate, come to think of it, as long as they’re prepared to play fast and loose with the source material anyway. At the very least they’re crazah not to include a duet for Crazah and Twist in which the older man teaches the kid to dance. (Right now he learns through a tasteless dream ballet.)
ESosa’s costumes grandly evoke Delta style, and Howell Binkley’s lighting works in deft strokes to create drama where the sincere but careless libretto stays flat.