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Theater review: 'Twist: An American Musical' at the Pasadena Playhouse

June 27, 2011 | 12:57 pm

Oliver meets Billy Elliot in “Twist: An American Musical,” now shaking the rafters at the Pasadena Playhouse. Directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen, this story of a Jazz Age kid with a talent for tap has energy to burn, but muffles its tween hero with an excess of spectacle and muddled storytelling.

Book writers William F. Brown (“The Wiz”) and Tina Tippit transpose Charles Dickens’ 1838 tale of an orphan’s odyssey to 1928 New Orleans, where Prohibition liquor and children are sold on the cheap. When local dance legend Roosevelt King (Jared Grimes) elopes with his pregnant white lover, Angela (Ava Gaudet), the Klan intervenes, led by Angela’s mustache-twirling brother, Lucius (Pat McRoberts).

Angela lives just long to deliver her child (Alaman Diadhiou), who spends the show being fought over by Roosevelt’s old dancer partner, Boston (Matthew Johnson), his chanteuse girlfriend (Tamyra Gray, a find from the first season of “American Idol”), a Daddy Warbucks-style lawyer (Cliff Bemis) and an undertaker (Cleavant Derricks). Derricks brings old-school cred; he won a Tony for “Dreamgirls” in 1982 and worked with Bob Fosse. Here he gives a bizarre performance that’s part minstrel parody, part demon, delivered with a voice that could summon the devil himself. 

As for Diadhiou, the 11-year-old has poise and charm, though he’s often sidelined by the show’s many big numbers (and the absence of a signature song as powerful as Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love?”). You worry what eight shows a week will do to Diadhiou vocally, yet he holds his own for nearly three hours, and when he breaks into a spontaneous smile, there’s no one else onstage.

But with more than two decades of development behind “Twist,” the show still seems to be searching for its musical heart. Tena Clark and Gary Prim’s best song, “Reach for the Sky,” is over-orchestrated here; “Twist” could use more a cappella moments.

Allen’s strong suit is building emotion through ensemble movement, and the best sequences in “Twist” are wordless.  Michael Jackson melds with Martha Graham in “Coffin Nightmare,” where zombies thrash with percussive force (the striking lighting is by Broadway veteran Howell Binkley). And Twist’s fellow orphans (led by a winning Joshua Bolden) tear it up in the acrobatic “Mardi Gras.” (By all means bring your kids, but be prepared for them to sign up for dance camp the morning after.) 

Todd Rosenthal’s graceful multistory iron filigree set and ESosa’s vibrant costumes are gorgeous: They deliver a sense of scale, but not the show’s soul. Too often, motivations feel schematic rather than organic. But when given a little breathing room, the performers can come alive, as in a buoyant fantasy sequence where Twist dances with jazz legends Al Jolson (Robert Loftin) and Josephine Baker (a smoking Vivian Nixon). The wide-eyed way Diadhiou takes his cues from the adult performers says everything about why children need parents. 

Ironically, the show’s strongest image comes during the curtain call: Twist, eyes and feet on fire, dancing after his jubilant father, the two reunited at last. You could build a great musical around that.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Twist: An American Musical” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4  and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. No Tuesday performance July 5 and 12; matinee performances July 6 and 13. Ends July 17. $39-$100. Contact: (626) 356-7529 or Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes. 

Photo: Matthew Johnson, left, and Jared Grimes with ensemble members in background. Credit: Craig Schwartz.