Bondage, drag queens, shoe fetishists — this isn’t your grandfather’s Oliver Twist! The new musical Twist: Please, Sir, May I Have Some More? puts a queer spin on the Charles Dickens’ classic. The result is sexy and often amusing, but also somewhat flawed. Moreover, if you’re looking for a meaningful exploration of the themes in Dickens’ work, you probably won’t find it here.
Featuring a book, lyrics, and direction by Gila Sand, with music by Paul Leschen, this irreverent show depicts young Oliver (Reymundo Santiago) — most often referred to as “Twist” — as a young man with a taste for bondage and whippings. He’s actually somewhat happy at Mr. Bumble’s Home for Unfortunate Boys, as he quite enjoys the punishment doled out by Mr. Bumble (Luis Villabon) and seems to have a thing going on with fellow orphan Weasle (Miron Gusso).
After displeasing Bumble one time too many, Twist is sent off to work in a mortuary. (“I see dead people” is his immediate reaction.) This segment of the show features a campy dream ballet that’s funny at first, but it goes on a little too long for its own good (the choreography is by Jonathan Alsberry and Villabon). Soon, our hero meets and is taken in by the Artful Dodger (Brian Charles Rooney), whose interest in Twist has a decidedly sexual element. Rooney, who made a strong impression as Lucy Brown in the recent Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, is terrific, and his solo “Sucker” is a delightful seduction.
As in Dickens’ original tale, the Dodger works for Fagin, played here by Garrit Guadan as a domineering drag queen. When she sings “I Always Come Out on Top,” this Fagin isn’t just referring to social positioning. Though Guadan’s voice isn’t the strongest (he speak-sings most of his lyrics), the actor does have a strong presence that largely makes up for it.
Some of the other Dickens characters are a little more faithfully adapted, including the violent thief Sikes (Villabon) and the prostitute Nancy (Denise Estrada). But Oliver’s benefactor in the original, Mr. Brownlow, is reimagined as Lady Emily Downlow (Laura Carbonell Smith); she likes to tie up Twist and dress him in her lacy undergarments, though her main sexual satisfaction comes from her fetish for footwear.
Leschen’s score, played by the composer himself on keyboard, has a somewhat generic, synthesized-pop sound. This is disappointing, since Leschen’s credits include penning music for the brilliant Scissor Sisters. Still, there are a few catchy numbers; among them are the ballad “Slip Away,” sung primarily by Estrada’s Nancy, and “Night Is Quick,” sung by Sikes, Nancy, Fagin, Dodger, and Twist.
Sand’s lyrics are packed with double entendres, such as in Twist’s lament, “I couldn’t leave here if I tried / This place has me bound and tied.” The book is also peppered with such sexual innuendo, which ultimately ends up feeling a trifle overdone. Similarly, Sand’s heavy-handed direction displays few subtleties in its visual gags, and many of the characters — Twist in particular — are often simply placed in poses to maximize their sensuous appeal. The musical could benefit from some trimming; several jokes fall flat and, at an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, the evening feels too long.
As Twist, Santiago has delicate features framed by a mop of brown hair that constantly falls over his eyes. His lithe, graceful body and sweet tenor also work in his favor, although he does strain a bit to hit his uppermost notes.
The uncredited set and lighting are primarily functional rather than having any kind of unified design. But Niki Hernandez-Adams’ costumes, supplemented by corsetry by Micol Raab, are eye-popping and add much to the production.
One final note: there is an interactive element to the show. I was dragged on stage to help fit Twist into a straight jacket at one point, and later was pelted by a ball that a juggling cast member threw into the audience. So, be forewarned!