KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 18, 1998
This is an X-file. As in “Avenue X” and the X-rated “Erotic Scenes in a Cheap Motel Room.” One’s a capella, the other’s au naturel.
MUSIC: under and up: “Serves You Right”
“Avenue X” bills itself as the world’s first a capella doo-wop musical. The doo wop sound originated in the harmonizing black vocal groups of the fifties. “Avenue X” is set a bit later, in 1963, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, where the titular thoroughfare separates the African Americans from the Italian-Americans. Their lives and cultures are worlds apart, but they share an abiding love of music. The aspiration of this ambitious little show was that music would cross the chasm and unite two disparate, dissenting groups. So John Jiler and Ray Leslee brought together gospel, jazz and Sicilian chants, African rhythms and R&B. Oddly enough, the bridge over the troubled racial waters is the sewer.
That’s where Pasquale and Milton meet, each practicing his own style of singing where the acoustics are best. Despite enormous bicultural pressure (and way too much onstage fighting), the black guy and the Italian decide to team up for Amateur Night at the Brooklyn Fox, where the guest judge is no less than Frankie Valli. There are subplots, too, concerning Milton’s disgruntled, hard-drinking father, who never made it musically across the color lines. And Pasquale’s younger sister, Barbara, who escapes from her Brooklyn low-life by swigging cough syrup. The so-called romance is between Chuck, the hyper-emotional butcher’s son, and Barbara, who does nothing but blow him off.
So, what we’ve got here is a watered-down “West Side Story” without love or death. The plotline is weak, the characters are poorly defined, and even with the new ending just added, there’s no arc or resolution, just a vague sense of hopelessness. There is some fine — though not fabulous — singing, with standout vocal performances by John-Martin Green and Leata Galloway.
The harmonies are tight, and the a capella conceit is all right, but a red-hot band wouldn’t hurt. Jiler and Leslee would have done much better to use the real source material (not lily-livered derivatives), can the plot, and just make the show a revue, which, with so little dialogue, and songs that don’t drive the story, is basically what it is anyway. Kinda like “Forever Plaid” with a social conscience.
Now if you like sex with your social commentary, you won’t want to miss “Erotic Scenes in a Cheap Motel Room.” It’s a late-night double bill at the Fritz, and it lives up to its double-X title. The opener is the hilariously topical “Monica: A Politically Erect Monologue.” Wearing red cowboy boots, sporting a down-home drawl, Lissa Zappardino nails the national obsession as well as the little intern and her dirty little secrets.
Everybody’s got a secret in “Erotic Scenes in a Cheap Motel Room.” There’s a closet-ful of dreams, fantasies, manipulations, nudity, sex-talk and tales of alien abduction. The partners in the shabby inn shift and recur: woman and husband; woman and oversexed lover; same lover with another woman; that woman with a female lover, and so on. Amazingly, there’s actually some meat here. Local playwright Michael Hemmingson sticks it to the whole society, especially the sagging standing of love and relationships. The cast rises wonderfully to the occasion. Michael Kelly is a hoot as the macho-man, Sarah Gunnell and Lissa Zappardino are intense as lesbian partners. Christine Doyle and Mark Alan Mendes are equally dysfunctional mates. Daniella Mayz directs with zeal and wit. Some of the laughs are cheap, but hey, it’s a cheap motel. Enter at your own risk.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.