“Twist” hearkens back to the raw early days of the Off Off Broadway movement. S&M take on Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” feels like something at the ’60s Caffe Cino, with Equity thesps mixing with rank amateurs for a cheesy extravaganza in thrift shop garb on a postage-stamp-sized stage. Like the latenight campfests of old, “Twist” is mostly a mess, with occasional wit and a few good tunes serving to offset the perverse twisting.
Story as reconfigured by librettist Gila Sand is reasonably faithful to the familiar narrative of the woebegone orphan (Brandon Ruckdashel), except he’s become the explicit lust object of a Krafft-Ebing-approved cross-section of sideshow humanity. Instead of pickpockets, he’s taken up by a team of flamboyant street hustlers. Kindly benefactor Brownlow becomes Lady Downlow (Angela Nicholas), a shoe fetishist.
Tuner swings precipitously from straightforward storytelling to self-mocking excess, never finding a solid footing. Neither do the songs, though the weary stream of double-entendre anthems to sadism and cross-dressing is leavened with enough tricky rhythms and pleasant melodies to suggest composer-lyricist Paul Leschen and Gila Sand have a real future.
In any case, melancholy waltz “Slip Away” wouldn’t be out of place in a first-rate Broadway score.
Personally embodying show’s bipolar nature is the Fagin of gender-bender Alexandra Billings, alternating, evidently at whim, between haut-melodramatic emoting and campily breaking the fourth wall with the wag of a Gene Simmons-like tongue. Billings’ taste is questionable, but in comic brio this is a diva turn of which Charles would be proud — Ludlam or Busch, if not Dickens.
Ruckdashel’s striking blond good looks and pleasant if thin tenor make him a plausible Adonis. It’s not his fault that saddling Twist with a fondness for whipping and domination destroys both the character’s innocence and our sympathy. How can we ache for Oliver when we know that every blow brings him erotic pleasure? It’s a sophomoric, self-defeating choice in a show that would never consider retaining one normative character to counterbalance the kink.
Remaining thesps prance around like auditioners for the Emcee in a crummy community theater “Cabaret.” Several cast members don’t seem to know their blocking or even why they’re there — another wry throwback to OOB’s heyday. More alarming than anything that happens to Oliver are the sounds of furniture moving during helmer Paul Storiale’s excruciatingly long blackouts.