ArtsATL > Theater > Alliance Theatre and Debbie Allen prepare “Twist,” a Dickensian life in Jazz Age New Orleans

Alliance Theatre and Debbie Allen prepare “Twist,” a Dickensian life in Jazz Age New Orleans

UPDATE 9/17: Read ArtsCriticATL’s review of “Twist.”

THEATER PREVIEW:

The Alliance Theater’s “Twist” transplants Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” to New Orleans in the 1920s, and production choreographer and director Debbie Allen sees strong parallels between Dickens’ early-Victorian London and Jazz Age America. She notes that the novel, a protest against the horrible living conditions of poor children in England, depicted an era of severe social dislocation and change similar to that in America from 1919 to 1928.

“There is a lot of rich stuff going on in America, and at the same time the desperation for work and jobs is mounting,” Allen said. “The Depression is getting ready to happen. It translates beautifully, really seamlessly.”

“Twist” will run from September 1 to October 3 on the Alliance Stage, with the official “opening night” September 15. The musical preserves the essence of Dickens’ story about the orphan Oliver Twist, forced into street criminality. In the Alliance production, the child, known simply as Twist, has a mother who is a white socialite and a father who’s a black entertainer. Twist undergoes heartbreaking encounters with a series of unsavory characters, and the plot involves a number of unexpected character developments.

Known for playing dance teacher Lydia Grant in the film and TV versions of “Fame,” Allen’s Atlanta connections include her dance drama “Soul Possessed” a decade ago, directed by then-Alliance artistic director Kenny Leon. With two Tony Awards, she brings a wealth of theatrical, film and TV experience to directing and choreographing. Allen recently directed the first all-black production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway and in London’s West End. (Above, Allen speaks at an Alliance rehearsal in July; below, the cast and creative team read the script backstage. All photos by Greg Mooney.)

“Twist” premiered in 1993, with a book by William F. Brown, author of “The Wiz,” and music by songwriters Gary Prim and Tena Clark. In upgrading “Twist,” Allen is collaborating with composer-lyricist Clark, who has written for the likes of Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole and who played a major role in bringing “Twist” to the Alliance stage.

At a recent rehearsal, Allen and Clark sat head to head watching every scene unfold, discussing possible adjustments and whooping when a performer hit a right note or carried out a dance routine well. “It’s been an amazing journey since Debbie and I got together,” Clark said. “I’ve written seven new pieces for the show; it’s been transforming.” Allen said she was immediately drawn to the work. “The idea attracted me, and when I heard the music, I said please put my name on top of the list — a lot of people wanted to do this. My family is from Louisiana, Baton Rouge, and going to New Orleans was like going to New York. It resonates with me. I understand the characters and the culture. Tena is also from the South, and we understand a lot and we connect.”

Yet while the music has echoes of New Orleans, its sound is more Broadway pop in the tradition of “The Lion King.” The choreographer-director and composer-lyricist share the same ultimate goal: “Our dream is to get to Broadway,” Clark said. “Our ambition is for the world to see this musical.”

“I never went for the period piece in music,” Clark said. “It has flavors of New Orleans and New Orleans moments, but to me the music has to take the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. That’s what the child’s life was like, and I wanted to reflect his feelings through the songs.”

Clark, a native of Mississippi, recalled that her first professional job was playing drums in the Blue Room of New Orleans’ Roosevelt Hotel. “I was very influenced by New Orleans music, blues or jazz or gospel. But although I’m from the South and have those New Orleans roots, I never felt [the score] should be inundated with Dixieland jazz and zydeco. To me, it’s more about Twist’s journey and the people’s lives around him that he touches and changes. Every person that he touches, he does change their lives. That it’s set in New Orleans adds this other depth and element; I have enough flavor in there that we’re reminded that we’re definitely in New Orleans.”

New Orleans is most strongly evoked in the dance numbers based on the city’s tap tradition. 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. The city’s voodoo culture is acknowledged in a funeral home scene in which ghosts haunt the child.

As expected, both Allen and Clark rave about the performance of their leading man, Alaman Diadhiou (above), as the 9-year-old Twist. The Los Angeles resident is one of 10 children in the cast, five from Atlanta. “It’s his first time singing in a musical, and he’s amazing,” Allen said. “It’s wonderful to watch this child meet the challenges Tena has set for him.”

Clark agreed. “He has major songs in the show, pivotal moments, when he’s being raw. The songs melodically are not simple, and it’s just him, on songs like ‘A Color No One Likes.’ He hits it out of the ballpark. I always felt that my music has never been trite or pretentious or anything like that, but pure, from the gut, from the heart. Alaman is like that, like he’s not been taking music lessons for years. His vocals are natural, from the heart and the soul.”

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