Dickens is not Shakespeare

Last night, we went to the final show of the Pasadena Playhouse 2010-2011 season (which started way back in February 2010 with Camelot): “Twist“. Given how the Playhouse has normally ended the season with a jukebox musical (most recently Baby Its You” in 2009), one might have expected “Twist” to be a jukebox musical about Chubby Checker. Alas, we weren’t that (umm) lucky—”Twist” is a modern retelling of the Charles Dicken’s classic, Oliver Twist. I’ll noted that Oliver Twist has been previously musicalized in the extremely successful early 1960s musical Oliver! with book and lyrics by Lionel Bart.

Twist” takes the basic story of Oliver Twist and transplants it to New Orleans in the 1920s. As the musical opens, we meet Roosevelt King, part of a black tap-dancing duo with Boston at an the Jewel Box, an old theatre on the edge of the French Quarter. Roosevelt is leaving the due to run off with Angela Thacher, a white woman he has gotten pregnant. As they meet at the train station, Roosevelt is set upon by the KKK, led by Lucius Thacher. These klansmen kills Roosevelt and gravely injure Angela. Angela crawls to the nearby Parish Orphanage, where she leaves her locket with Della, the teenaged black girl who answers the door, and has her baby. The mulatto child, now named Twist, grows up at the orphanage. When on his 10th birthday he asks for his birthday meat, he is sold to the nearby funeral home to be a funeral dancer for New Orleans’ funeral processions. Oliver Twist gets scared at the mortuary and runs away. Meanwhile, Lucius has used up his trust and wants his sister’s millions… but can’t get them because her child may still be alive. He starts to scheme to recover Twist, so that he can kill him and get the money. Twist eventually ends up in the Quarter, where he becomes a street dancer, and is befriended by one of Fagin’s Boston’s kids, the Artful Dodger Pistol, who brings Twist back to the basement of the Jewel Box. Here Twist meets Boston’s girl, Nancy Della (yes, the same Della from the orphanage) and gets introduced to Boston’s business: running illegal liquor in the Quarter. While out on a liquor run, Twist is nabbed by the police and arrested. Meanwhile, Lucius has learned where Twist is and attempts to buy him from Boston. Twist is saved from prison and released to the custody of Mr. Brownlaw Mr. Prudhomme, who is enamored with black-style performers such as Al Jolson (blackface), Josephine Baker, and Roosevelt King. But Della steals Twist away during Mardi Gras, returning him to Boston, who has worked out a deal to sell him. But Della gets cold feet: she tells Twist of his mother, and calls Mr. Prudhomme to come get him. When Boston learns of Twist’s parents, he decides to say no to Lucius and keep Twist with Della and himself. But Lucius won’t take no for an answer, and in the ensuing gunfight on a bridge, both Boston and Lucius are killed. The musical ends with Della singing how she and Twist will go on.

Twist was performed well (more on that in a bit) and danced extremely well—this is due to the talents of Debbie Allen who served as director and choreographer. Much of the music (written by Tena Clark and Gary Prim) is toe-tapping, although the tunes and lyrics (also by by Tena Clark) don’t stick with you after the show. However the musical ultimately left me cold. I place the fault of this at the feet of the book writers, William F. Brown (who wrote “The Wiz”) and his wife, Tina Tippit. It took me a while to figure out the problem, but ultimately it boiled down to the title of this post: Charles Dickens is not Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is a unique writer: his works can be transplanted into different times and venues and they work. The Lion King is Hamlet. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet. The underlying basis of the story is Shakespeare, but the timeless tale is told in a new mileau. I don’t think that can be done with Dickens. As I sat through this story, I kept seeing the correspondences to Oliver!. This occurred with songs: “Meat on the Bones” is “Food Glorious Food”; “Death is Alive and Well” is “That’s Your Funeral”; “Be Quick” is “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, and so forth. It also occurred with characters (Pistol is Dodger, Della is Nancy, etc.) and locations (the workhouse, the theatre, the death scene on the bridge). The story was too close to the original, and the original had already been told with an excellent musical (Oliver!) and numerous film versions (most recently Polanski’s excellent 2005 version). Perhaps this could have been saved with spectacular music and lyrics, but it wasn’t. As it was, we kept comparing it with Oliver!, and Twist kept coming up short. Brown’s The Wiz had a similar risk, although there it was the original story just with new music and style, and that music and style worked. But with Twist, we kept asking ourselves “why?”. There wasn’t a burning need to move Oliver Twist to a new time and locale. We not even sure if one could do this with Dickens as his stories are so closely tied to their time, place, and people. This hurt this musical, and continues the tendancy of the Pasadena Playhouse to focus on the splash, the dance, and the energy and not notice the book problems (and book problems are behind a large number of unsuccesful musicals).

The book problems also manifested themselves in song problems. Setting aside the lyrics, which tended not to stick with you after the show and leave you humming and singing, both acts ended poorly. Act I ends with “Della/Boston Fight”, a slow ballad—constrast this with Oliver!’s act I ending song, “Be Back Soon” (the act ending with the arrest). Act II ends with a Finale that is a ballad Della sings to Twist—Oliver! ended with a reprise of “Reviewing the Situation” and reprises of “Food Glorious Food”, “Consider Yourself”, and “I’d Do Anything”. Acts should not end on slow songs; they need to leave the audience humming the tune as they walk out of the auditorium. Les Miz demonstrated this well.

However, as I said earlier, the dancing and the performances were remarkable. You can clearly see Debbie Allen’s hard work in the dances, which were spectacular and reminded me of the energy and creativity we saw in the Fame TV series. The stellar cast aided her in this. The mix of equity and non-equity performers aided her in this: they acted and danced their hearts out, working to make this production succeed on their energy, talent, heart, and feet alone. It is hard to single people out in this true ensemble performance, but I must…

Leading the cast was Alaman Diadhiou, a 10 year old wonder who sang strongly, acted strongly, danced even stronger, as was cute as a button. Diadhiou had great stage presence; I hope it translates well to adulthood (alas, it didn’t for most of the youths that have played Oliver!). As Boston, Matthew Johnsonæ was an exceptional singer and dancer, as was his partner in dance, Jared Grimesæ as Roosevelt King. Equally strong, as Boston’s partner in love, was Tamyra Grayæ—she was both a playful dancer and a strong ballad singer. As Mr. Prudhomme, Cliff Bemisæ projected the appropriate warm paternal vibe. On the evil side, Pat McRobertsæ provided the appropriate malevolence as the Bill Sykes parallel; remind me to never name a child Lucius, as the name portends evil.

That addressed the top tier, but within the rest of the ensemble was some remarkable talent. Playhouse regular Cleavant Derricksæ was back as Crazah Chesterfield, the funeral shop owner, who turned that small role into a remarkable performance. I was also taken by the performance of 11 year old Dempsey Tonks, who just drew my eye with her performance whenever she was on stage. Also eye-catching were Diane Delanoæ as Miss Cotton (my mind was remembering her face from Northern Exposure) and Kyle Garvin (who has an extermely unique face). Rounding out the company were: Paul Aguirreæ (Potlatch/Ensemble), Kevin C. Beacham, Jr. (Ensemble), Joshua Bolden (Pistol/Ensemble), Nickolas Eibler (Ensemble), John Fisheræ (Ensemble), Ava Gaudetæ (Angela Thatcher/Ensemble), Chantel Heathæ (Ensemble), Joshua Horton (Ensemble), Holly Hymanæ (Ensemble), Olivia-Diane Joseph (Ensemble), Wayne Mackins (Ensemble), Chase Maxwell (Yancy/Ensemble), Vivian Nixonæ (Ensemble), Micah Patterson (Ensemble), Malaiyka Reidæ, Carla Renataæ (Naomi/Ensemble), Julianna Rigoglioso (Ensemble), Isaac Spector (Ensemble), Terrance Spenceræ (Ensemble), Robert Loftinæ (Al Jolson/Ensemble), Dougie Styles (Ensemble), and Armando Yearwood Jr. (Ensemble).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

As I noted above, the music in the show was wonderful dance music, although the tunes didn’t stick with you. I’ve already mentioned the composers (Tena Clark and Gary Prim). Orchestrations were by Harold Wheeler. Jim Vukovich was Music Director and Vocal Arranger, as well as being part of the band (Keyboard 1). Wally Minko was Associate Music Director, as well as Keyboard 2, with Lance Lee as Assistant Music Director as well as playing drums. Rounding out the orchestra as Tom Bethke (guitar/banjo), Ernest Tibbs (bass), Vanessa Brown (percussion), Wayne Bergeron (trumpet 1), Larry Hall (trumpet 2), Bruce Otto (trombone/tuba), Tom Evans (reed 1), Dick Mitchell (reed 2), Mark Cargill (violin 1), and Susan Chatman (violin 2). As always, the Playhouse assembled an excellent orchestra with great sound.

Technically, the show was unmatched. This is something the Playhouse tends to do well, with spectacular set designs, costumes, and lighting. The set, by Todd Rosenthal was spectacular, evoking the feel of the French Quarter and the seedier side of New Orleans. The costumes by Esosa were stunning yet appropriate. The lighting by Howell Binkley was critical in establishing the mood and the settings, which is what good lighting does. Lastly, the sound by Peter Fitzgerald was clear, crisp, and otherwise unnoticable (which is what a good sound design does). Dee Dee Irwin and Victoria Watson were associate producers. Joe Witt was the Production Manger, and Alex Britton the Production Supervisor. David Blackwell as Production Stage Manager.

Twist” has extended at the Pasadena Playhouse; it now concludes its run on July 24. Tickets are available through the Pasadena Playhouse; I seem to recall them being on Goldstar as well. This was our last subscription show at the Playhouse; we didn’t renew based on our bankrupcy experience. The Playhouse has announced their 2001-2012 season: South Street – A Musical Comedy (September 20-October 16, 2011); Pastoral (November 1-27, 2011); Art (January 24-February 19, 2012); the Heiress (April 24-May 20, 2012), and Sleepless in Seattle – The Musical (June 12-July 15, 2012). Sleepless is a change from the original announcement, which was to either be Peggy Sue Got Married or The Nutty Professor, but none of the three excite me. As for Pastoral, which was to be with Angela Bassett, that’s going to be replaced, as Bassett has announced she’ll be doing a play in New York then. The replacement hasn’t been announced. This schedule reshuffling is one of the reasons we didn’t renew; I don’t expect that in a subscription house.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Today brings “Jewtopia” at one of our favorite venues, REP East. Next weekend brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.