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Avenue X

a Musical
by John Jiler (music by Ray Leslee)

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3634

SHOWING : January 13, 2010 - February 07, 2010



Listen as the sizzling sounds of Doo Wop and R&B collide on a street corner in 1960’s Brooklyn in this revolutionary a cappella musical – the story of two young men who search their divided community for harmony… in more than just their music.

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On the Street Where We Live
by Dedalus
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Did you ever love something so much that you found it defined you, that it over-rode all the paradigms that seem to rule your friends and family?

For Milton and Pasquale, that “something” is music. More specifically, it is that well-harmonized, a cappella sound that emerged from early sixties street corners and merged with rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz to lay the groundwork for what would become “Do-Wop Rock’n’Roll.” Their story is the focus of “Avenue X,” a terrific new musical enjoying a top-notch production at the Alliance Theatre.

Their love of music is at that near-obsession level that leads them to discard friends, ignore family, subvert prejudice. It even leads them to late-night trips into the sewers, simply because “the acoustics are so much better.” Of course, the reality is that they live in 1963 Brooklyn, where the first African-American family has encroached on Italian-American turf. Before too long, racial epithets and fists are flying with equal ferocity, and even music won’t prevent a needlessly tragic resolution.

Since Milton is from one side of the street and Pasquale is from the other, it is, in fact, their mutual love of music that brings them together while it tears their neighborhood apart.

Yes, the plot is decidedly “been-there, seen-that” – a “West Side Story” for the “bromance” crowd. The characters are wafer thin, defined by one or two characteristics that are predictable, even expected – sensitive choir boy, disappointed singer, brow-beaten housewife, bigoted blowhard, sassy sister. Every male is a macho posturer, and every female is a doormat (or a flirty tease). At least this is the set-up – one of the joys of this show is watching them go into unexpected directions – a surprising sensitivity here, a mellow devotion there, a fierce rebellion elsewhere. Small steps, to be sure, but, given the cultural background, amazingly effective steps.

It is, in fact, not the story, but the music that makes this piece so memorable, so effective. Sung totally without accompaniment, these eight actor/singers have voices that blend in a sound that is heart-breakingly beautiful. And the songs, all original, evoke the era to perfection, and, to my own ears, could easily stand side-by-side with some of the classics of the times. Starting with “A Thousand Summer Nights” (a “summer hit” that evokes my own lazy youth), through the somewhat retro “Command Me” (a nicely macho piece that nevertheless harmonizes anger and nostalgia in a smoothly complex emotional mix), up to the final “Where is Love?” (a seemingly clichéd let’s-forget-our-conflicts response to the final tragedy that nevertheless moved me), this is a score to cherish, to listen to again and again. More than simple pop hit pastiches, these are true Musical numbers – carrying a full load of plot and character significance without losing their toe-tapping, finger-snapping sense of fun. Definite kudos need to go to Musical Director Darryl Jovan Williams for keeping the cast in tune and in synch without the normal instrumental back-up.

And, this is one of the better ensembles you’re likely to see or hear. Playing characters at odds, they manage to synchronize as a whole, with no one standing out as a “star.” J.D. Goldblatt (Suzi winner for “Jelly’s Last Jam”) and Nick Spangler (TV’s “The Amazing Race”) are the focus of the story, but they never overshadow the others – Lawrence Clayton, J.D. Webster, and Neda Spears on the African-American side of the street, and Rebecca Blouin, Jeremy Cohen, and the deep-DEEP-voiced Steve French on the Italian-American side. They sell this story in every respect, and almost make me believe the uneasy détente of the finale may last a little longer than the funeral service that no doubt follows.

Technically, the show is up to the Alliance’s usual standards. Todd Rosenthal’s skyless city-scape set boasts fire escape ladders leading into the murky heights, and front stoops studiously face in different directions. Ken Yunker’s lighting design carefully evokes various times and various locales without upstaging with its occasional flash and dazzle. Mariann Verheyen’s costume plot nicely suggests both period and place, and Clay Benning’s sound design provides good support for the singers (not to mention a beautiful reverb in the sewer scene).

Avenue X is a Brooklyn location with a large cultural divide right down the center. It can never be “our street,” but only a series of “our side of the street” neighborhoods, a truism no doubt valid to this day. “Avenue X” is a show with two sides – a story we’ve probably seen in numerous variations before, but held together and sent soaring by a score that is truly memorable and truly a joy.

I would probably be considered an “outsider” on either side of this street. But, I was glad I made the visit, and would just as gladly go back at any time.

-- Brad Rudy (



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