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Central Avenue Breakdown
Swing State

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Central Avenue Breakdown

Going into this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, I was baffled by the inclusion of Central Avenue Breakdown. Given a full production at last year's NYMF, which won a number of awards and a presentation at the Daegu International Musical Festival in South Korea, it struck me as the least essential choice possible, and something that was occupying a slot that could be filled by another, newer, and frankly worthier offering. The 2011 incarnation, about two black saxophonist brothers in 1940s Los Angeles who compete on the way up and swap souls on the way down, struck me then as bloated and simplistic, the kind of show that trades more on its burning brass accompaniment than on its writing.

So I'm pleased to report that the new Central Avenue Breakdown, playing at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, is a drastic improvement over the old one. Kevin Ray's music, lyrics, and book have been augmented with new book contributions by Andrea Lepcio (replacing Josh Sohn), who has worked wonders clarifying and sharpening the story. You now care much more about the by-the-rules Bill Marcel (Joshua Boone), his free-spirited and free-sounding brother Jim (Rod Lawrence), and the white club singer Jane (Rebecca LaChance) who keeps coming between them as they jockey for fame, money, and family pride. Director-choreographer Christopher Windom has also brushed up his staging and dances to make things feel more like theatre than smoke-choked cabaret, as was previously the case.

But for the myriad beneficial changes, significant problems remain. Chief among them is that there's no originality to this plot — competing brothers, one good with talent but no vision and one bad with a gift but no self-control, need more zest at this point to make even a moderate emotional impact — and despite Justin Hornback's outstanding jazz orchestrations and Jonathan Smith's on-target musical direction, the songs are functional at best, and never memorable lyrically or musically. The action is riddled with clichés, from the failed father who's also a sax genius (Albert Christmas, doing his best) to the suffering mother struggling to hold together her disintegrating family (Stacey Sargent) to the comic-relief saloon owner (Juson Williams) and even the racist and on-the-take white cop (Jeremiah Zinger). If there's a specific reason for why this tale needs telling, Ray, Lepcio, and Windom still have not demonstrated what it is. As a result of all this, the 150-minute show plays as a minimum of 30 minutes too long.

Ultimately, despite excellent performances from Boone, Lawrence, and especially LaChance and Sargent, anchoring the proceedings with as much raw feeling as the script and score allow, it's still tough to recommend Central Avenue Breakdown — or that NYMF consider reviving future titles in this manner. What's onstage now might be better than it used to be, but it's still not particularly good. The creative team has proven, however, that the potential for a worthwhile evening is present; they're just another two or three drafts, and a half dozen or so doses of genuine inspiration, from finding it.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Central Avenue Breakdown
Through July 22
The Pershing Square Signature Center , 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org


Swing State

Walking into the 45th Street Theatre for Dana Yeaton and Andy Mitton's NYMF musical Swing State, you might be expecting a shocking politically themed work of lasting import: perhaps the next 1776 or even Of Thee I Sing or, better yet, a heretofore unseen creation that speaks to, and maybe attempts to heal, our apparently permanently divided country. What you get instead is an unruly, bizarre, and bitter-tasting meditation on faith situated in southeastern Ohio (on a playground set by Josh Zangen), pitting born-again evangelical teacher Bonnie (Morgan Weed) against her gay chiropractor Neil (Jed Resnick), without either ever sharing passionate views, making compelling arguments, or even engaging in substantive disagreements based on something more than one-dimensional prejudice. It is, in other words, both timely and timid, wannabe agitprop that can't stop apologizing for itself.

I'd love to be able to tell you what happens in Swing State, but basically nothing does. She hurts her neck, he helps her, she convinces him to advertise his practice at her Bible study group, he goes, there's a scene, and they regroup to see if they can find common ground on anything. This might be more poignant if either character was richer or angrier, so there could be visible movement in some useful direction. But the vanilla sketchiness of Yeaton's book and lyrics, paired with Resnick's blasé performance and Weed's shrill and unlikeable one, keeps drama from emerging from any of these situations; conflicts arise and dissipate much the way Neil cures Bonnie's various ailments (in the 90-minute outing's least convincing twist): as if by magic. Recognizable tension occurs only once, when Bonnie is reading a self-written book to her class of five-year-olds, with each new turn of the page telling you something terrifying about her vision of the world and her pained personal history. It's not a believable moment, but it's at least a human one.

Director Igor Goldin and musical director Micah Young have done as much as anyone could to make everything cohesive and visually and aurally interesting, but their efforts can only carry them so far. This concept, and these characters, simply lack the size and personality needed to sing, the lengthy passages of rambling recitative and filler material (ranging from gospel to what-shall-I-wear? numbers) suggesting the trouble Yeaton and Mitton faced forcing them to do it. It's possible this all might work better as a straight play, so the characters are encouraged to talk to each other and develop ideas together rather than to escape into insular (and boring) solos. But even stripping away the songs won't work if there's no reason for the show to exist: It needs something to say that makes it necessary, and right now that quality is not evident. Absent it, Swing State is not likely to get airborne.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Swing State
Through July 29
The 45th Street Theatre (Mainstage) , 354 W. 45th Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org