By Howard Pousner
At the Alliance Theatre’s recent Taste of the Season event, which presented a sampler platter of performances from the 2010-11 slate to tempt ticket buyers, “Twist” was being sold as a “blockbuster.” And in an interview, one of its key creative team members, music and lyrics writer Tena Clark, talked about her hopes that it would make the leap from Atlanta to Broadway.
All of which must be characterized as wishful thinking, since the new musical based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” more than 15 years in the making, doesn’t open the Alliance season until September.
But one of the reasons for optimism is that Debbie Allen, perhaps best known for acting in the film and TV versions of “Fame” but with a growing résumé of stage directing credits, has signed on as director-choreographer. Allen did a relatively soft sell to the Taste of the Season audience after talking up the adaptation, which moves Dickens’ story from 1830s London to New Orleans of the 1920s.
“Buy some tickets, child,” she urged in concluding her stage remarks. “Buy tickets!”
We caught up with her backstage.
Q: In updating “Oliver Twist,” how important is it to hew to the original?
A: You can let it go a lot, because we’ve combined and eliminated characters, condensed the storytelling, and it works so well in America and New Orleans and in that time period, 1928. So that’s moving it forward, though it’s still not today, and the music is amazing.
I think the story is very important, the element of the story that the boy is orphaned, that the boy is seeking his identity. That’s the mystery of the whole novel: Who am I? Where do I belong?
Q: Have you been to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina?
A: Oh, yes, many times. I shot a movie, “The Fantasia Barrino Story[: Life Is Not a Fairy Tale]” down there. And I just opened a show in Baton Rouge — it was amazing — called “Just Dance.” But I was in New Orleans because I wanted to spend time there, and we actually auditioned there. And it was just a good time to smell it, feel it.
I grew up down there, so it just reminds me. My father is from Baton Rouge, so every summer we were in Port Allen and we’d go to New Orleans. So, since I was little, New Orleans was like the big city. It was like going to New York.
Q: How does New Orleans work as a replacement for London in “Twist”?
A: Fantastic. You know, you think about London having the high side, the low side, London Bridge. You know, we have the French Quarter, the parishes, Bourbon Street. Everything is happening there right on the street. Then you have those very high-class people who live in the big houses, plantations — still, even now.
New Orleans is so colorful and has so many dimensions.
You know, the whole idea of the funeral home there is huge. The funerals in New Orleans [reflect that] how you’re born may not be as important as how you die.
Q: When you start rehearsals, I imagine you don’t say, like your character Lydia Grant in “Fame”: “You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying … in sweat.”
A: [Cackles] No, I don’t say that!
Q: But do you have any phrase like that that you always start out saying to your cast, to set the tone?
A: You know what, I have landed in a place of real respect. And it was true for me when I directed “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” [winner of the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award for best London revival] and had to direct James Earl Jones.
Q: You don’t push that guy around, right?
A: Well, he wanted me to tell him everything, he wanted to know everything I thought, because I have a lot of great ideas, I do my homework. I love directing, I love being creative. So it’s always different, it’s never the same. It’s like, you can go to the same river, but it’s not the same water.
So when we start the first day of rehearsals, one of the things I do with any cast is to just really saturate them in the history of, “Who are we? Who might your character be? What is going on in the world in this time and space?” … That’s even for a dance role. Even if they’re not speaking, they need to understand what are they dancing about.”
Q: When he was Alliance artistic director, Kenny Leon brought you in to premiere your dance drama “Soul Possessed” in 2000. Have you seen his revival of “Fences” on Broadway?
A: Oh, my god, it’s fantastic. I was so proud of him and all of them. Denzel Washington is like my brother. Our families are close, our kids have grown up together. So when I saw Denzel, I was so thrilled. Actually when he did “Julius Caesar,” he realized he needed to stay in the theater because he’s gone away from it for too long. He’s amazing in this production.
Q: Do you think Kenny will win a Tony?
A: You know what, if he doesn’t, we’re going to steal one and give it to him.
Alliance Theatre 2010-11 season opens with “Twist.” Previews start Sept. 1. Opening night: Sept. 15. Run is through Oct. 3. Information: 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org.