The Tony and Oscar winning family classic Oliver and the recent award-
winning off-Broadway musical Twist share the same basic Charles Dickens
plotline.  For those living under a rock, it goes as follows:  An orphan boy named
Oliver Twist, abandoned at birth, raised in an orphanage, later sold to a
mortician, and eventually taken in by the rapscallion Fagin finds ultimate
wealth and happiness.  That’s where the resemblance ends.  Unlike the G-
rated, Focus on the Family approved Oliver, Gila Sand and Paul Leschen’s
Twist gives the Dickens classic a subversively gay S/M musical twist.  I loved it!

At lights up, we meet the newborn Twist (“probably another runaway”) and
the Twist ensemble (of various genders and sexual persuasions) who join in to
sing the rock-rhythmed title song, which informs us that “everyone ends up
queer here,” “here” being the orphanage in which Twist is raised.  In short
order, Twist has grown up into the enchanting Brandon Ruckdashel, and we
quickly understand that this is one Oliver Twist who enjoys himself a good
whipping, giving new meaning to “Please, sir, may I have some more?  (There’s
even a song, “Whipping,” sung to this order by workhouse owner Bumble, the
cross-dressing Matron, and the rest of the workhouse boys.)

Sand’s book is full of amusingly twisted lines like, “It’s Tuesday.  Do you ever
recall having supper on a Tuesday? Tomorrow’s food day.”  (Twist’s Bumble is
clearly a good deal stingier with the gruel than Oliver’s was.)  Or when Twist
asks in all innocence how he could earn money “just by standing on a street
corner.” There are also some unexpected (and very funny) gags.  When Mrs.
Sowerberry tells Twist, “You’ll have to be restrained,” she quickly tears off the
entire hem of her full length gown in order to restrain him, to which Twist
responds, “You know. It’s quite amazing how this keeps happening to me.”

Of course, as a musical, Twist would not work (despite its clever and naughty
reworking of Dickens’ tale) without a memorable score, and Leschen’s songs
are catchy, melodious, and hummable. From the poignant “Bound and Tied,”
sung beautifully by Ruckdashel, to the Artful Dodger’s infectious “Sucker” (“fill
up my mouth and I’ll be a sucker for you”), to the rousing Act 1 finale “You
Can’t Choose Your Family,” this is one of the best original scores I’ve heard in a
long time. (There’s also the Abba-esque “Clothing Makes the Man” and the
touching “Reflection,” a gorgeous love song for Twist and Dodger, among
other winners.)

Director Storiale spent several months casting Twist, and it shows in the musical
theater talent he has assembled. The title role was the hardest to fill until, at
the end of several months of searching, Ruckdashel arrived from New York and
blew the competition away. Looking and singing like an angel (with a
naughty gleam in his eye), Ruckdashel is, as they say, “a find.” Casting
Alexandra Billings in the role of Fagin was both an inspiration and a coup.  
Fresh from her triumph in Drood, Billings is a force of nature, who in this version of
Oliver Twist’s story heads not a ring of young pickpockets but rather a house of
ill repute where the lads ply a somewhat different, though equally illegal,
trade. With a voice like raw silk (and a tongue that seems to have a life of
itself), Billings gives a whirlwind of a performance.

Tall, lanky, bleach-blond Chris Carlisle is a dynamically androgynous Dodger–
with a sensational voice.  The lovely and star-quality-blessed Darrin Revitz, is
absolutely endearing as Nancy. Equally good, and providing a swarthy macho
counterpart to Twist’s peaches and cream sweetness, is the dynamic Justin
Mortelliti, bringing his rock-star voice to the role of Bill Sykes.  Angela Nicholas is
a beautiful and classy Lady Downlow, whose shoe fetish she gladly passes
along to Twist.  (“My wickedness is in my heels,” she sings piercingly.) Others in
the winning cast include ready for Rocky Horror Michael Mullen as Charlie
Bates, Billy Thompson (a fright in drag) as Matron and later as a (handsome)
Constable, the spooky/kooky duo of Kelly Roberts and Justine Valdez as Mr.
and Mrs. Sowerberry, and Brendan Brandt, Niki Villarimo, and Liam Smith as
Twist’s fellow orphans.

Musical director Russell Kieffer’s excellent prerecorded background tracks take
the place of a live band.  Choreographer Matt Valle has designed several fine
dance sequences, most notably a pas de deux for Twist and Sowerberry,
performed exquisitely by Ruckdashel, with the able help of Roberts.  A.M.
Bartolomeo’s costumes alternate between elegance and rags (including a
gorgeous strapless red gown which Twist delights in trying on).  

Only a very simple lights-up, lights-down lighting design, and frequent scene
changes which leave the audience waiting in pitch darkness could be worked

Twist, with its dark, sexy, and funny twist on the oft-performed and filmed
Dickens’ classic, has all the signs of a cult smash. It provides a winning evening
of theater for those in search of a subversively tuneful antidote to their usual
holiday fare.

Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
   December 1, 2007

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