Musical Theater Review: TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on July 1, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Tony, a frantic theatre critic, calls John, his editor, in the middle of the night.

John: [sleepy] This better be good.

Tony: What’s happening to the theatre? [sobbing now] My God…the theatre…

John: Take it easy, Shakespeare.

Tony: Where is Jerome Robbins? He was standing here a minute ago.

John: What’s the matter with you, Tony? Jerome Robbins has been dead for years. You must have been dreaming. Tell me what you dreamt and I’ll tell you what it meant.

TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at The Pasadena Playhouse

Tony: In the beginning I dreamt that we were at an opening of some kind. Everybody we knew was there: critics, celebrities, friends, producers…and, to my surprise, an audience that was mostly black, which pleased me enormously, as Broadway has been actively trying to tap into that market in recent years.

John: So you’re on Broadway?

Tony: Yessss…No! Hold on, I’m at the Pasadena Playhouse…I’m there to see the West Coast Premiere/Out of Town Tryout of a musical called Twist, which is an adaptation of Dicken’s Oliver Twist, set in pre-Depression New Orleans, but really it’s the bastard love-child of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Annie (with a little Billy Elliot and Les Miz thrown in for good measure). I can spot some of the “award-winning” creators in the audience and one of them sits right down next to me as I take notes on the show. The overture starts and I can’t decipher one melody. Then a rousing number comes on, but I miss many of the lyrics because the orchestra is miked louder than the performers – so loud, in fact, that I can barely make out the clickety-clack of the tap dancers on the boards.

Then this black song-and-dance man leaves his partner stranded and meets his pregnant, aristocratic white girlfriend. The KKK shows up, kicks her in the stomach and hangs the poor guy (thankfully, offstage). While dying and dragging herself to an orphanage, I’m shocked when the woman breaks out into song! Her number is fittingly titled, “Why?” If songs are used to heighten the emotion of a scene, why would she have a very short song when the dialogue was enough? (Come to think of it, a musical hanging might have been just as appropriate.) We’re barely into the prologue before the first scene, and all indicators point to one messy musical. Then Jerome Robbins appears before me.

TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at The Pasadena Playhouse

John: How did he look?

Tony: For a guy who is dead thirteen years, he doesn’t look bad. You know what he says?

John: “Hey, Tony. For a guy whose career has been dead for thirteen years, you don’t look bad?”

Tony: Am I still in my dream? No. He says, “Do you know what is wrong with the opening number? It doesn’t set up the context of pre-Depression New Orleans, it just happens to take place there; the opening number must tell the audience what to expect. Any good show doctor would see that right off the bat.” Then somebody shushes him and he disappears! The next scene is ten years later and a bunch of really cute orphans sing about meat on the bones, daring the mulatto protagonist named Twist to ask for meat. It mirrors the musical Oliver! so closely that it’s distracting.

TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at The Pasadena Playhouse

John: Why is the kid named Twist?

Tony: After a passing twister prior to his birth. And this kid isn’t meek; he’s articulate, willful, decent and proud; ergo, his character has nowhere to go. Right after “Meat on the Bones,” the evil caretakers of the orphanage sing “Between Black and White,” making his mixed-race status a reason for brutality, but there are two things wrong: One, some of the other kids on stage are the same shade of cocoa, and Two, New Orleans was saturated with mulattoes and creoles, making the premise a bit far-fetched. From there on out, the musical never finds its footing.

John: But that’s what out-of-town tryouts are for; the producers need feedback.

TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at The Pasadena Playhouse

Tony: Yes, but in my dream I discover that this musical has been in development since the 1980s, and has had two full productions in Philadelphia and Atlanta (cities with large black populations). Critics noticed the weak book and songs, yet major producers have taken it under their wing, and hired Debbie Allen to fix it. She would have had a better chance at fixing Spider-Man on Broadway! She should have been hired for choreography only: there is a fantastic dance number called “Coffin Nightmare” that highlights Broadway veterans Harold Wheeler (orchestrations) and Howell Binkley (a glorious lighting design). Still, some of the moves resembled the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

John: So should they scrap the thing?

TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at The Pasadena Playhouse

Tony: The idea for Twist is not the problem: A boy searches for his true family and, along the way gets involved with shady characters, a bootlegger and a fatherly lawyer. But the entire effort seems contrived, commercial and insipid. It’s a jambalaya of recognizable ingredients designed to find an audience, and it smacks of commoditized theater based on focus groups and familiarity.

The libretto, which is co-written by William F. Brown with his wife Tina Tippit (who had revised Brown’s book for The Wiz), is unfocused and syrupy. The composers are “Grammy award-winner” Tena Clark  (known for McDonald’s jingles) and popular studio musician Gary Prim (“songwriter for Dionne Warwick”); neither have written for the stage before, which tells me producers are more interested in making hit songs than telling a story. The melodies are basically forgettable and resemble eighties R&B and pop more than the cutting edge jazz of 1920s’ New Orleans. Clark is responsible for the almost insultingly simplistic lyrics – such as, “There’s a heart that’s beating strong inside of me,” and “Spread your wings and fly.”

But here’s the capper: Just to ensure audiences that it’s home-grown, Twist is subtitled, “An American Musical.” Could you imagine any show coming over from England and calling itself “An English Musical?” Given the amount of commercialized crap posing as art in the American Theater, I would think that such a moniker would be anathema for ticket sales. But that’s why this is such a nightmare: I fear that audiences will continue to support less-than-mediocre theater. No doubt there were good intentions, but the show feels packaged to cater to all races and ages, while avoiding anything substantive. It’s a splayed, splurging, splashy, splotchy and completely misguided Broadway wannabe posing as a message of love. It just feels calculated.

But I place the blame not just on the producers, but the Pasadena Playhouse. Didn’t they learn their lesson earlier this year with another mess of a Broadway aspirant, Dangerous Beauty?  Are producers not paying attention to Spider-Man and Tales of the City at A.C.T? Enterprises such as these are in such a rush to have a hit on Broadway that they’re willing to sacrifice story and song for a razzle-dazzle veneer. There are hundreds of capable, small companies that would be perfect to workshop new musicals. How long can this nightmare last?

As I exit the theater, I see two of the executive producers and I want to shake them, saying, “Why didn’t you audition composers and choose the right one for your project? That’s how Charles Strouse and Lee Adams got  Bye, Bye Birdie and Flaherty and Ahrens got Ragtime. Plus, for the money spent on this outing, someone could have been hired to discover shows that are ready to be produced!”

TWIST – AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at The Pasadena Playhouse

John: “Someone,” meaning you?

Tony: Well, it is a dream. But I can’t speak and I can’t wake up. Still, there is hope: the audience neither applauded the eleven o’clock number nor stood at curtain call. The only people who stood up either worked on the show or knew people who did.

John: Wow, that’s awful. Maybe your dream means that you are seeing too much theater. Either way, get some sleep, Tony. At least you don’t have to review it!

photos by Craig Schwartz

Twist – An American Musical
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena
Tues-Friday at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on July 17, 2011
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ArtsBeatLA July 3, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Huh, and I had thought this show was gonna be some sort of tribute to Chubby Checker…

Funny review! Don’t worry Tony, it was just a bad dream… or was it?!!


Angela Berliner July 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm

This was the funniest review I’ve ever read! I kind of want to see it now…in a, “I want to see the movie ‘Center Stage 2’ kind of way…


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