“A baby’s born to be adored, and cuddled, hugged, and kissed.  But not this one. He’s no one’s son. He’s all alone.  He’s Twist.”  

Sound familiar?  An abandoned newborn in mid-19th Century London grows up in an orphanage, and when he makes the mistake of asking, “Please sir, may I have some more?”, is promptly sold to an undertaker, then falls in with a gang of miscreants under the thumb of a wily leader named Fagin. All the while, said comely youth indulges in all manner of S&M/B&D games in a Victorian England of leather boots, pimps, whips, whores, chains, fish-net stockings, cross-dressers, and scoundrels of every sexual persuasion and perversion.

“What?!,” you say. “This is not the Oliver Twist I remember.”

Bingo! This is most definitely not the Oliver Twist of either the novel, the many film and TV adaptations, or the family musical Oliver. This oh-so-twisted Twist is the deliciously deviant concoction of Gila Sand and Paul Leschen, which opens San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre’s 2009-10 season with one twisted bang.

Directed with consummate style and panache by James Vasquez, brought to life with flair and imagination by a sensational team of designers, and featuring a trio of lead performances sure to generate rave after rave, this is a Twist that makes it impossible for anyone who’s seen it to ever look at the Oliver Twist tale in quite the same way again.

Twist (The Musical) begins on a dark and rainy night (great sound effects by sound engineer Stuart Holmes) as a hooded stranger delivers an infant child, or more precisely throws the babe smack dab into the arms of orphanage director Mr. Bumble (Tony Houck). With his powdered wig, rouged lips, and ruffled collar, this is a Bumble like no other before, though every bit the same taskmaster. “There’s no dancing in the workhouse,” he orders his ill-behaved charges, most of whom live in fear of his oft-cracked riding crop. Not so young Twist (Jacob Caltrider), a blond-pageboyed, pink-cheeked, strapping young lad with a longing for punishment, especially if it means stripping down to tight black briefs, his wrists tied to one of the many poles adorning Bumble’s abode.

As the workhouse orphans know all too well, it’s a No-No to ask for more food. In fact, it’s often a No-No to ask for any food at all. “No supper on Tuesdays,” Mr. Bumble reminds them. “Tomorrow is a food day!” Then, when Food Day does arrive, all each boy gets is a handful of gruel, whereas Bumble and his rather masculine Matron (David McBean) get all the pastries their evil hearts desire. On one particular food day, Twist does ask for more, though, and because (in Bumble’s words) “It’s been too long since you’ve been beaten,” the bad, bad boy gets the whipping he so richly desires.

The only comfort poor Twist finds in the orphanage are the nightly cuddles he shares with fellow foundling Weasel (Jimmy Latimer, Jr.), especially when Weasel tucks Twist in.  “Tighter,” begs Twist, and the tighter the better.

Soon, though, Mr. Bumble has had enough of recalcitrant young Twist, and dressing him in a straightjacket and ball gag, he takes the lad out into the streets of London to be sold to the highest bidder.

Who should that be, of course, but undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Andy Collins), who enjoys carrying around a skull which he uses as a ventriloquist does his dummy. At first, Twist is a bit uncomfortable living in a mortuary, especially one like Sowerberry’s where the corpses are not always quite dead. (“Her family brought her here early.”)  Sowerberry’s nagging hag of a wife (Jackie Cuccaro) doesn’t particularly take to Twist, nor does his spoiled assistant Noah Claypool (Scott Striegel).  When Claypool and Twist get into a fight, Mr. Sowerberry is quickly sent for.  “You’ll have to be restrained!” Claypool informs Twist, who responds with a delighted “Restrained??”

As Dickens fans know, following Twist’s escape from Mr. Sowerberry’s, our orphan hero makes the acquaintance of a certain Jack Dawkin, aka The Artful Dodger (Tom Zohar). This is no high-spirited lad of ten or twelve, though, but a dangerous looking Mohawked teen dressed in a long black coat and hat, leather trousers and boots, a see-through shirt, and goggles around the neck.  Dodger is immediately taken with Twist and not only sings to him that “I will be a sucker for you,” he offers him a lollipop after first demonstrating just how to thrust it in and out of the mouth, the better to savor every succulent lick.  

Dodger escorts Twist back to Fagin’s lair where they are greeted first by Charlie Bates (Houck again), a servant boy whose favorite mode of attire is a shiny black vinyl French maid’s uniform, the better to show off his leggy gams.  It’s not long before Fagin himself (herself?) arrives (a highly androgynous McBean sporting a long red wig, an elegant black coat, and stiletto-heeled boots).  Part vamp, part villain(ess?), this is a Fagin not to be crossed (and certainly not to be accidentally referred to by an unwitting Twist as Fag-gin).  If a boy does happen to cross the master (mistress?), boots will have to be shined, and that means with tongue. 

There couldn’t be a Twist without a Nancy (Amy Northcutt), and as might be expected, this is a Nancy with a twist as well, a black-corseted Barbie doll with orange-and-blond pigtails and black-and-white striped stockings. Nancy is of course under the thumb of the evil Bill Sykes (Striegel), who dresses in (guess what?) black S&M gear. Finally, Dickens’ Mr. Brownlow has become Lady Downlow (Cuccaro), a curvaceous woman of means with a black beehive do and a shoe fetish to make Imelda Marcos proud. (When asked if she likes men or women, boys or girls, Lady D. quickly replies, “I like shoes.”)

As can be seen from the above synopsis, Sand and Leschen’s Twist is very tongue-in-cheek, and no matter how over-the-top it may get, is far more naughty than depraved. Though at times a bit shocking, it is never anything less than entertaining, and although its being very, very gay will come as no surprise, that it also features one of the best (and most poignant) gay love stories between Twist and Dodger is an unexpected treat.

As past Diversionary productions have proven, San Diego’s non-Equity acting pool is a richly talented one, and the cast of Twist is no exception, beginning with Caltrider’s loveable, sexy Twist. The actor understands perfectly Sand’s naughty-yet-sweet take on Dickens’ boy hero, and looks fetching whether in straightjacket or lacy pink ladies’ undies.  Caltrider has a beautiful tenor as well, which he shows off to fine effect. 

As Fagin, McBean is the proverbial force of nature, scary, seductive, sexually ambiguous, and commanding. Scrooge In Rouge’s Houck once again steals scenes in a pair of roles, each a great showcase for this talented, versatile performer. Cuccaro is a standout too in her two roles, first as the shrewish Mrs. Sowerberry, and even more so as Lady Downlow, a role she really sinks her high heels into with comedic finesse. Northcutt is a sweet, funny, sexy Nancy with excellent pipes, which she shows off in the lovely waltz “Slip Away.”  Striegel is very good as the nasty Claypool, but miscast as Bill Sykes, a role which calls for a bigger, more menacing presence.  Latimer and Collins both do fine work in several roles each.

Finally, returning to the Diversionary for the first time since last summer’s Yank!, is the prodigiously multitalented Tom Zohar as Dodger.  The all-American gayboy-next-door G.I. of Yank! has transformed himself here into the darkest and sexiest (yet most romantic) Dodger in Dickensian history.  Zohar’s singing is glorious, his acting rich and multi-layered, and the chemistry between his Dodger and Caltrider’s Twist makes for some very hot yet touching loves scenes.

Sand and Leschen have written a dozen or so terrific songs, running the gamut from the infectious title song, the bubblegummy “Sucker,” the Abba-esque “Clothing Makes The Man,” the exquisite love duet “Reflections,” and the dramatic quintet “Night Is Quick.” Garrit Guadan and Sands’ Bolero De La Talones is a fabulous and funny showcase for Cuccaro’s coloratura. Twist’s prettiest (and my personal favorite) song “Bound & Tied” has been replaced here by the perhaps more fitting “Trouble,” but I do wish they’d give Twist back that gorgeous ballad.  I’d love to hear Caltrider sing it. On the other hand, Sand and Leschen have added a bang-up finale, “Beautiful Boys And Lovely Ladies” which ends the evening on a high note indeed.  

Director Vasquez has taken Sands and Leschen’s tale and given it a look and feel that only a director of his caliber can envision. Dark in a very Dickensian way, yet always keeping tongue pointedly in cheek, Vasquez’s Twist never forgets its source material, all the while tweaking Dickens again and again. Vasquez is responsible for the show’s highly entertaining musical staging as well.

Jeannie Galioto’s costumes (many already described here) are a wonder of twisted imagination. Kristin Ellert’s set incorporates chain link gates, sliding panels, and metal poles, and morphs from locale to locale in seconds.  Stephen Sakowski’s lighting design provides a perfect mood match for costumes and set. Peter Herman’s wigs and David Medina’s props add greatly to the show’s look.

Diversionary’s Twist benefits greatly from its live “house band,” led by musical director Tim McKnight on keyboards, with Nathan Hubbard on percussion and Jonathan Davis on guitar.

Following the performance reviewed here, creators Sand and Leschen were effusive to Diversionary Theatre Artistic Director Dan Kirsch in their praise of the many ways Vasquez, Kirsch, and the entire cast and design team have made this the most fully realized production of Twist yet.  I heartily concur.  San Diegans (and Angelinos smart enough to take the drive down) will be talking about Twist for months to come.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
July 12, 2009
                                                                         Photos: Daren Scott

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