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Connie Danese

OPENING NIGHT AT TWIST: The title character of Twist ““ An American Musical, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, is played at most performances by an 11-year old with the grand name of Alaman Diadhiou. Possessed of a natural ease, charismatic smile and centered presence, clearly this young actor is a talent to be admired. But wouldn’t stage fright be a problem for someone so young?

Speaking after the show on opening night at the Pasadena Playhouse, Diadhiou flashes a melting grin, and you soon realize that “stage fright” are two words that do not resonate with him.  “I’ve gotten pretty used to it since we did the show in Atlanta.” Credit for his calm demeanor is earnestly explained. “I get it from my Dad and his whole family, because I come from a very spiritual tribe in Africa””the Jola tribe in Senegal””but I was born in Santa Monica.”

Alaman Diadhiou

Diadhiou started dance training with Twist director and choreographer Debbie Allen at the age of six but began singing only one year ago. “I practice for the show with my vocal coach and she helped me a lot.” But he’s obviously most grateful to Allen. “She knows so much about this and pushes us to do great things.” The most important thing he learned from Allen? “Don’t be yourself but be the role you are encompassing. Do not anticipate what happens and live the role.” It appears Diadhiou can anticipate living the role of a future star. (Coco Monroe plays Twist at certain performances).

Another particularly sparkling face among the talented cast of dancers belongs to 11-year old Dempsey Tonks. “I’m from Miss Allen’s dance school and I’ve done a whole bunch of recital shows with her, but this is my second big show. I was in the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. When I auditioned for Twist we had to sing, dance and act. I sang “I Haven’t Met You Yet” — a Michael Bublé song.” Asked about the most fun part of performing in Twist, Tonks is quick to respond with a huge smile, “Oh, to be on stage and have that big rush.”Â  And what does she mean by “rush”? “Having all those amazing people clapping for you. It gives you so much joy and motivation.”

Dempsey Tonks

Tonks has future plans. “I would like to be on Broadway”.  Has she seen a Broadway show? “Um.” There is a momentary pause as she realizes, “No I haven’t, but I heard so many great things about it, so”¦.” Tonks trails off then brightens up again when asked what makes her happy offstage. “My parents, my sister, my little brother and dancing. I’ve been dancing for three years.” Her contagious energy will surely propel Tonks to many more.

When Allen’s dancers hit the stage for a rousing opening number, the entire theater pulsates with pizzazz, but Matthew Johnson, tap-dancing with various cast members, is a standout ““ and that’s before we realize he plays a major role in the production. “Oh my God,” he says when this is mentioned to him. “Thank you. I can’t believe you’re saying that. I never tapped before being cast in this show. Miss Allen saw something in me that I didn’t even know I had in myself. I took ballet, modern and hip-hop, but I’m really more of a singer and never put on a pair of tap shoes before. Cathie Nicholas, granddaughter [and grandniece] of the famous Nicholas Brothers, taught me how to tap for the show. I worked with her for about two weeks before we began the actual rehearsal period.”

Matthew Johnson with Alaman Diadhiout

Johnson’s road from hometown Atlanta to Pasadena and the leading role of Boston (based on a combination of Dickens’ Bill Sikes and Fagin) is magical. “I never took acting classes because I just wanted to record and sing.” He laughingly admits, “This is the first time I ever had to speak so much. When I was about 17 I worked with Miss Allen in a musical show called Soul Possessed at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Then 10 years later I was at the Alliance in Rejoice directed by Kenny Leon when Phylicia Rashad came to see it, because she was working with him on A Raisin in the Sun. She called Debbie and said “˜I saw this guy who I think would be great to work with you’. So Debbie called me and asked, “˜are you the same Matthew Johnson I worked with in Soul Possessed’?” Johnson’s face retains a sense of awe as he recalls, “It all came full circle 10 years later. I feel like I’m living a dream.”

The child of a pastor in Atlanta, Johnson grew up singing in the church. “I didn’t do much professionally outside the church, and now I took a step to follow my heart and pursue my dream. I’m thankful to my parents for guiding and grounding me. They helped me develop character and I love them deeply.”

The thing Johnson will remember most about being in this company is, “Watching kids like Alaman, who never sang before, do what they love and see how much they’ve grown. I wish I had started at that age. But this show has given me hope and the knowledge that there is no limit to what I can accomplish.”

Twist, with a book by William F. Brown and Tina Tippit and a score by Tena Clark and Gary Prim, continues its joyful message at the Pasadena Playhouse through July 17.

Connie Danese

Connie Danese