UPDATE 9/17: Read ArtsCriticATL’s review of “Twist.”
It’s different every night — the syncopated, improvised tap solo in “Back by Demand,” the singing, dancing, call-and-response opening number that blasts the musical “Twist” right out of a cannon. Or so I’m told by Jared Grimes, who has created the role of song-and-dance man Roosevelt King in this adaptation of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” set in Jazz Age New Orleans. Choreographed and directed by Debbie Allen with music and lyrics by Tena Clark and Gary Prim, “Twist” opens Wednesday at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Alliance Theatre and will run through October 3. The show, already in its second iteration, hopes to move to Broadway.
In the show, King is the city’s ultimate entertainer, so admired that people of all races and classes flock to see him. He can cross into the world of upper-class whites and have a relationship with a white woman, and hence the child named Twist.
Unusual for his generation, Grimes (at left), now 27, studied tap dancing beginning at age 3 and developed his style by watching stars like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in late-night old movies. By age 13, Grimes was studying footage of old-time tappers who had made their way from stage to film.
Like the tap legends before him, Grimes hopes to push his genre forward, and the role of Roosevelt King gives him the vehicle. He’s one of a few male tap virtuosos of his generation who’s meshing the dignity, class and stage-savvy finesse of Robinson, Astaire and Sammy Davis Jr. with the streetwise hip-hop rhythms that Savion Glover introduced in the 1990s. He’s reconciling the classic with the trendy. He’s bringing the acting-singing-dancing “triple threat” performer back into fashion.
Billed as a “Showstopper” on the cover of Dance Magazine three years ago, Grimes has performed alongside tap legends Fayard Nicholas and Gregory Hines and in a Philadelphia production of “Stormy Weather.” He co-hosts a monthly music, tap and comedy show, “Broadway Underground,” in New York. And for the past four years, he’s performed about four gigs a year with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet.
Last week, Grimes breezed through the Woodruff Arts Center’s glass doors with a spring in his step, wearing athletic clothes, headphones and sneakers. You notice that he has the ears, wrinkled forehead and wiry build of a young Fred Astaire. He calls that “crazy.” When he speaks, his head tilts one way and then another, to the rhythm of his voice, as each phrase rises out of a new idea. A conversation with Grimes, optimistic and powerfully charismatic, is like going to see a great show — it leaves you walking on air.
He explained how tap dancing helps place King in the musical’s Jazz Age setting. He draws a bit from Robinson, one of the era’s most notable tap dancers. But Grimes’ primary inspiration for his character is the younger John William “Bubbles” Sublett.
“He used to perform on a piano; he used to perform on sand,” Grimes said. “He was a guy that wasn’t extremely polished, but he had a heart, had an edge to him, almost like an old-fashioned dust that just made him really cool and smoky. He wasn’t top-notch classy and perfect, but he was the first person who started dropping his heels.” By adding the heel drop, Bubbles opened the genre to the speed and rhythmic complexity of syncopated jazz music. “Roosevelt is this next-generation guy who’s ahead of his time. I want to be that guy,” Grimes said.
Director and choreographer Allen explained how tap dancing, as well as the era’s African-American dances, helps transplant Dickens’ story of an orphaned boy in search of his family from early-Victorian London to New Orleans in 1928. The score, though flavored with the city’s jazz, blues and gospel music, was written primarily to take the audience on an emotional ride, Louis Mayeux wrote in an ArtsCriticATL preview. There’s less emphasis on period music. “New Orleans is most strongly evoked in the dance numbers based on the city’s tap tradition,” Mayeux observed. “Allen notes that Twist’s dances follow the New Orleans tradition of child street performers, who fasten bottle caps to the bottom of their shoes for tapping.”
I asked Allen how this tradition helps move the story from 19th-century England to the Crescent City in the Jazz Age, and she replied by email: “It has to do with him being a street performer. They didn’t have those things in England. That is how Twist lands with Boston’s gang…. Pistol [one of Boston’s lead boys] discovers him dancing in the street for coins. It is a commonality between the struggling youth in this show. Always hustling for a way to make money.”
And Allen uses other dances of the era to create the setting: the Charleston, with its jaunty step-kicks and rubber-legged slides, and the mud-stomping, hip-gyrating Black Bottom. It’s said that both of these dances originated with African-Americans in New Orleans in the middle of the first decade of the 1900s; by the mid-1920s, both were national crazes. Both have accents on the off beat, and both are said to have influenced tap dancing as it developed alongside jazz music.
That’s where Grimes’ improvised opening solo comes in. “It’s hard to describe how he jumps, spins, how he is so spontaneous night after night,” Allen wrote. “Jared is unarguably one of the most skilled talents in the world of dance on stage today. He brings an amazing style, grace and athleticism as well as rhythmic patterns that [a soloist would be] hard pressed to duplicate.”
With that opening solo, Roosevelt King is ahead of his time in other ways too, Grimes said. Through the shared joy, passion and love he generates on stage, King gives people a glimpse of a future society where there’s no segregation, where people love and appreciate each other regardless of race. “We reprise it at the end, and it full-circles everything,” Grimes said. “At the end of the show we come right back, because people want more of that; people want the world to be like that.”