nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 30, 2006
Gila Sand and Paul Leschen's new musical Twist is, on the one hand, a vaguely naughty and irreverent take on Charles Dickens's classic novel Oliver Twist, with the titular character transformed here into a somewhat older waif than we're used to, one with a decided masochistic streak. But on the other hand, especially in its second half, Twist is a fairly straightforward re-telling of the sadder and more melodramatic parts of the tale, especially Nancy's disastrous dysfunctional relationship with the violent and villainous Bill Sikes, and her sacrifice to allow young Oliver to escape from the unsavory life that he's drifted into.
It is, to say the least, an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Like lots of contemporary musicals (The Drowsy Chaperone is a key example), Twist wants to have its cake and eat it too, nastily deconstructing and commenting on a beloved form/story while trading shamelessly on its appeal, hoping that audiences will be willing to simultaneously love and deride the targeted material.
Twist's twist, so to speak, is to plant Oliver and Company in the middle of a fetish-indulging world where Fagin is a cross-dressing, gender-bending, whip-bearing bully and the young woman who promises to rescue Oliver from him/her has a thing for shoes, especially shoes with tall stiletto heels. Nancy is depicted frankly as a prostitute (and Sikes as her pimp), while the Artful Dodger and Fagin's other boys weirdly remain pickpockets and petty thieves, albeit presumably sexually active ones. The show is outre primarily in terms of costuming (it boasts a credit for "corsetry"); occasionally Reymundo Santiago, the production's lithesome Oliver, drops his pants to receive a caning or a whipping, but he always keeps his skivvies on.
Twist's cast includes two somewhat mainstream theatre personalities: Brian Charles Rooney (who was the cross-dressing Lucy in the recent revival of The Threepenny Opera) plays a rather fustian Artful Dodger, and Luis Villabon (who played Paul in Paper Mill's A Chorus Line a few years back) is Bill Sikes. Neither seems particularly comfortable with his role; nor is either given much of anything interesting to do. Garrit Guadan bites more convincingly into his bizarre version of Fagin, though Sand's direction and book seem to be holding him back, restricting the campiness. The most appealing member of the cast is Miron Gusso, in the relatively small role of Charlie Bates, another of Fagin's associates: in a couple of scenes, he gets to engage in some before-the-curtain interaction with the audience while juggling, and his playful personability turns them into a highlight of the evening.
Sand's book teeters back and forth between trying to shock the audience by placing Oliver in slightly naughty circumstances and trying to invest us emotionally in his predicament (we are supposed to believe, for example, that he and the Artful Dodger have fallen in love). Leschen's music is less varied and less rock-inflected than I hoped it would be. He provides lovely accompaniment to his actors on piano throughout.
Overall I found Twist to be disappointing (and, at nearly two hours without an intermission, a hard sit). I'm all for shaking up the classics, but creators have to go all the way if they're going to attempt something outrageous or subversive. Dressing Oliver up in some S&M clothes without delivering a good hard spanking to the audience just isn't worth doing.