To write a play about a neighborhood in the early 1960s where invisible barriers divide races and cultures would prove difficult to many playwrights. To make it a musical, well - not just a musical, but an a cappella musical, seems almost impossible! Avenue X, currently being performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, accomplishes this daunting challenge with great success.
Set in Gravesend, a Brooklyn neighborhood, in 1963, this musical is a compelling and thought-provoking essay on race relations, the diversification of America, and the ability for a shared interest to bring opposite sides of a volatile situation together. In this case, members of the entrenched Italian-American neighborhood and the African-Americans moving into Gravesend find that a shared love for doo-wop singing can, at least temporarily, bring them together in beautiful harmony. Possibly to a greater extent, Avenue X is also about a more personal understanding and acceptance of oneself, even amid the tensions of family expectations, cultural differences, and a changing and confusing society.
The eight-member cast is uniformly excellent. Jon Stewart, Roy Chicas, Michael Sharon, Leenya Rideout, Kevin R. Free, Jeffery V. Thompson, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Corey Reynolds each deserve praise. All possess wonderful voices and are strong actors, and both qualities are essential in this challenging piece. To effectively sing tight harmonies with no accompaniment for more than two hours, while also telling a powerful story is not easy.
Avenue X has music by Ray Leslee and book and lyrics by John Jiler. The songs have soaring melodies and pleasant harmonies, and include all of the styles that formed doo-wop: blues, gospel, early rock n' roll, opera, hymns, and folk tunes. "Follow Me" and "Where is Love?" are musical highlights. The lyrics by Jiler are appropriate to the music and sometimes poignant, but it is the book that is this show's true strength. Avenue X is driven by its dialogue. The book is gritty, moving, at times funny, and authentic. Most of the songs are performance pieces within the story, and the others usually comment on the feelings of characters rather than propelling the plot forward. Although different from most modern musicals in this regard, the songs serve the story sufficiently (and are always a joy to hear), and this structure allows the strong dialogue to shine. The musical takes a much more serious tone in the second act, following a lighter, and sometimes humorous, presentation in Act 1. The only weakness to be found is in a somewhat forced and unsupported ending. The overall quality of the book, however, is not jeopardized.
John Ruocco does a fine job of directing this fine cast, and also serves as Choreographer. With the difficult and large responsibility as Musical Director, Georgia Stitt performs wonders by creating a beautiful, yet controlled, musical atmosphere using only the voices of her singers. The set (Narelle Sissons), costume (Custis Hay), and lighting (John-Paul Szczepanski) designs were all appropriate, creative, and sometimes ingenious.
Avenue X sings in near-perfect harmony in its staging at the
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The a cappella musical can be seen
through March 18, 2001 at the Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre. For
additional information, call the box office at (513) 421-3888.
-- Scott Cain