Published in In Theater March 1998
The X-factor in “Avenue X” has always been the ending. Ever since its 1994 Playwrights Horizons premiere, the piece has undergone changes. It may be the only show ever to win both the Richard Rodgers Musical Theatre Award and the Kleban Librettist’s Award, but its final scene has never quite been set. The conclusion has varied in numerous regional productions, with one or another character meeting a violent death. San Diego Repertory Theatre artistic director Sam Woodhouse found those endings too tragic, not in keeping with the message of this doo wop musical.
So he worked with co-creators Ray Leslee (music) and John Jiler (book and lyrics) to refashion yet another dénouement. The result is disappointing. Now there’s no tension release and no resolution — for the main plot or the back-stories. Relationships just peter out, leaving behind a vague, uneasy feeling of hopelessness. The American Dream has turned dark and nightmarish once again. What seemed like a path to inter-cultural partnership has been blocked by unyielding prejudice.
It was hard to cross the street to begin with. Avenue X, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, is a sharply drawn, black-and-white dividing line, separating the African Americans from the Italian-Americans.
Oddly enough, the bridge over the troubled racial waters is the sewer. During some subterranean singing practice (“you get the reverb off the rocks”), a chance meeting between two young guys leads to their extremely unpopular decision to team up for Amateur Night at the Brooklyn Fox, where Frankie Valli will judge the competition. It’s 1963, and this ethnic and musical fusion is intolerable.
But in spite of enormous resistance on both sides of the street, Pasquale and Milton decide to cement a friendship and merge their musical styles. This gives Leslee and Jiler the opportunity to range over an expanse of genres and roots music, from Sicilian chants to doo wop, from African rhythms to gospel, jazz, R&B, even rap.
Shoring up the symmetry and underscoring the similarities in these two oppressed and oppressive survivor societies, secondary characters periodically emerge from the background: Milton’s bitter, hard-drinking father, who never made it musically across the color lines; and Pasquale’s restless, sexy younger sister, who tries to escape the butcher’s son and her dreary life by defiantly swigging cherry cough syrup and trying to sing with the boys (“You gotta have a dick to sing doo wop,” she laments). Rounding out the racial and vocal balance are a Black Nationalist Jamaican and an inarticulate Italian (who sings a mean bass). To italicize the parallel importance of heritage, this day in the life of a neighborhood is set against the annual Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music.
The whole show is performed a capella, at once a charming and frustrating choice. Although the tight harmonies are often thrilling, the pitch-finding machinations get old, and a red-hot band wouldn’t hurt a bit.
At the San Diego Rep, the energy is high, the effort is impressive, and the set (by NEA/TCG Design Fellow Robin Sanford Roberts) is an appropriately gritty chain-link-and-steel industrial wasteland.
The production boasts New York club singer John-Martin Green, who played Milton’s Jamaican friend in an early workshop, and has now graduated to the role of Milton’s father (who gets some of the best songs). Green is terrific, solo or teamed with Los Angeles-based recording artist Leata Galloway (original Broadway cast member of “Hair”), who plays his long-suffering (sultry-voiced, scat-singing) wife. The rest of the cast includes San Diegans Julie Jacobs, Duane Daniels and Gregory Porter, as well as Seth Sharp as Milton, Gary Lowery as Pasquale and Ramon McLane as the lovesick Chuck.
Even the most musically and dramatically brilliant cast would have trouble here. There’s no character development, no arc to the plotlines, and no flat-out, jaw-dropping, show-stopping songs. It seems like Leslee and Jiler bit off more cornbread and focaccia than they could chew. They would’ve done better to use the real musical source material (rather than watered-down derivatives), simplify the plot, and just make the show a revue which, with its minimal dialogue, and songs that don’t drive the story, is basically what it is anyway. So, instead of a weak “West Side Story” without love or death, it’d be a strong “Forever Plaid” with a social conscience.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.