The makers of Twist, at the Pasadena Playhouse, have twisted Charles Dickens’ original plot of Oliver Twist in fascinating ways.
Fagin is gone from the story — and good riddance. In the original — Dickens’ second novel — the aging troublemaker who ruled a gang of young pickpockets was so stereotypically Jewish that when Dickens later matured and acquired some Jewish friends, he revised the novel to remove most references to Fagin as “the Jew” and, apparently, to tone down the ethnic shtick in his public readings.
When Lionel Bart, who was Jewish, adapted Oliver Twist into the musical Oliver!, he continued the effort to make Fagin less explicitly Jewish, but he didn’t succeed in making Fagin especially dimensional. I never understood why Ron Moody, who played Fagin, was usually listed first among the cast members of the show and the movie adapted from it — wasn’t Fagin really a supporting character?
From the time I was a teenage chorus member in a community theater production of Oliver! and then through many other productions as an audience member, I always became impatient when Fagin went into his showpiece solo “Reviewing the Situation,” twice, deep within act two. We were all caught up in what might happen to Oliver and Nancy — and we had to sit through Fagin’s 11-o’clock number? Why?
Also, Oliver! generally spends too much time extolling the “fine life” within Fagin’s underground criminal syndicate. In an attempt to make the show child-friendly, the show’s depiction of Fagin’s world was sanitized until it looked like London’s 19th century version of summer camp.
In writing Twist, librettists William F. Brown and Tina Tippit didn’t eliminate the network of young kids engaged in criminal pursuits. But this version, set in New Orleans in 1919 and 1928, spends much less time in “the Jewel Box Theatre” — the abandoned edifice that’s the base of the kids’ bootlegging operation — than Oliver! spends in Fagin’s lair.
And the two adult characters of Fagin and his enforcer Bill Sikes are conflated into one man, Boston (Matthew Johnson), who is notably different from either of the originals. He quits a promising show business career when his partner is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan — and, a decade later, he’s a bootlegger with a gruff exterior and a venal streak but with some inner decency.
For example, he doesn’t beat his girlfriend Della (Tamyra Gray), the equivalent of the original, often beat-up Nancy. And his actions don’t compel her to sing her own 11-o’clock number like the original Oliver!’s “As Long As He Needs Me”– in which Nancy justifies her self-abasement at Bill’s hands, before she’s finally killed for doing a good deed. Parents of young girls who see Twist should appreciate that Della is more thoroughly modern in her self-respect than Nancy ever was.
Not that Twist banishes the concept of abject villainy — the new show’s character of Lucius, who is secretly Oliver’s uncle as well as the murderer of Oliver’s father, is about as bad as a guy can get (he’s also more or less the counterpart of Monks in Dickens’ novel). Modernizing the more important characters of Bill and Nancy doesn’t translate into a refusal to recognize that evil people are out there. But although Lucius is a Klan member and although Twist acknowledges the racism that permeated its time and place, the show also has a conspicuously good white man — the lawyer (Cliff Bemis) who’s the counterpart to the original story’s Brownlow.
In a script that carefully honors its title character’s biracial roots, no blatant race card is played. Despite the troubled pasts of Boston and Della — both of whom are African-American — the script suggests (spoiler alert) that in the wake of their apparent turn away from a life of crime, they might indeed be worthwhile guardians of the rest of Twist’s maturation, especially if they do so with the cooperation and the financial resources of the white lawyer. In other words, it will take a little village to raise Twist. Some might see this scenario as too politically correct, but I see it as a fairly plausible happy ending.
Brown and Tippit have crafted a much stronger book than those of most of the other new musicals the Pasadena Playhouse has recently produced. It’s a much savvier script than that of Dangerous Beauty, earlier this year.
Generally, the score by Tena Clark and Gary Prim is lively and effective, if not always true to its time and place in pre-Depression New Orleans. But really, that’s not as important as its dramatic power — which is considerable, with only one major exception.
OK, here’s the biggest problem with Twist — Della’s 11-o’clock number “Reach for the Sky,” which is revived a few minutes later as the grand finale for the entire cast. The problem isn’t the melody — it’s Clark’s lyrics. Need we say more besides repeating the clichéd phrase “Reach for the Sky”? Surely Clark can find a more original image, and in the last scene, surely director Debbie Allen doesn’t have to turn the entire cast to face the audience as they deliver this self-help homily straight at us. It imparts a final note of overkill to a musical that is strong enough not to need it.
Twist, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S.El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Wed 2 pm, Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes July 24. 626-356-7529. www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
Whoever knew that a director would make a big splash this year directing more than one play about the secrets lurking within the souls of pharmaceutical company workers? But Robin Larsen has done just that.
First she staged Keith Huff’s sprightly romantic comedy Pursued by Happiness at the Road Theatre. It’s about the unorthodox mating dance of two Eli Lilly employes.
Then she directed David Harrower’s harrowing Blackbird at Rogue Machine. It’s no comedy — it’s about a pharma exec (Sam Anderson) who’s suddenly confronted by the young woman (Corryn Cummins) with whom he had an affair years earlier, when she was extremely under-age. She shows up at his office building amid the debris of a trash-strewn break room (the break room in Pursued by Happiness wasn’t nearly as much of a mess). As they confront each other, we can see the blurred images of other workers in the surrounding corridors, the images refracted through the room’s translucent windows — as if the characters are the fish in the bowl.
The other common component between the plays, despite their many differences, is that Road Theatre co-artistic director Anderson (who co-produced Pursued by Happiness) plays the exec in Blackbird. It’s interesting to see an artistic director of one theater delivering such a blistering performance at another theater. Not since Reprise artistic director Jason Alexander starred in The Prisoner of Second Avenue at El Portal have I seen — oh wait, that was just a little more than two months ago.
Anyway, Rogue Machine is using its smaller space for a larger impact than most of the town’s micro-theaters (or macro-theaters) have achieved lately. At Rogue Machine, Blackbird follows on the heels of Small Engine Repair, The Sunset Limited and, for that matter, last year’s Larsen-directed Four Places — all of them realistic dramas enhanced by the room’s extreme intimacy. Small Engine Repair, by the way, is now moving to the Beverly Hills Playhouse for a July 8-31 extension.
Blackbird, Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., LA. Sat-Sun 5 pm, Mon 8 pm. Closes July 24. 855-585-5185. www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
Small Engine Repair, Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7pm. Closes July 31. 855-585-5185. www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
Twist photos by Craig Schwartz.