Review: ‘Avenue X’

Musical numbers: "Where Is Love?,""A Thousand Summer Nights,""Scat,""Serves You Right,""Waitin',""Io Sono Cosi Stanco,""Woman of the World,""She's Fifteen, ""Stay With Me, Baby,""Where Are You Tonight?,""Big Lucy,""Why,""Follow Me, ""Follow Me" (reprise), "Palermo,""Command Me,""Rap,""Moonlight in Old Sicily, ""Gloria,""Africa,""Go There,""Til the End of Time,""Where Is Love?" (reprise), "Where Is Love?" (reprise).

Musical numbers: “Where Is Love?,””A Thousand Summer Nights,””Scat,””Serves You Right,””Waitin’,””Io Sono Cosi Stanco,””Woman of the World,””She’s Fifteen, “”Stay With Me, Baby,””Where Are You Tonight?,””Big Lucy,””Why,””Follow Me, “”Follow Me” (reprise), “Palermo,””Command Me,””Rap,””Moonlight in Old Sicily, “”Gloria,””Africa,””Go There,””Til the End of Time,””Where Is Love?” (reprise), “Where Is Love?” (reprise).

Race relations are skin deep in the trite “Avenue X,” a doo-wop musical so loaded with cliches one keeps hoping for the arched eyebrow of camp parody.

One hopes in vain. If there’s an original idea or novel thought in John Jiler and Ray Leslee’s a cappella tuner, director Mark Brokaw hasn’t found it. He lends unsubtle guidance to unsubtle material that seems simple-minded even by “After School Special” standards.

“Avenue X” is the kind of street where teenagers hang out on corners harmonizing and waiting for the big break. This is Brooklyn, 1963, after all, and the play takes place, naturally enough, on the day of the big sing-off competition judged by no less than Frankie Valli.

The musical’s bluntly delivered message of racial tolerance can either be attributed to good intentions or a deliberate attempt to unify the songs under a user-friendly premise. In either case, the nicely arranged (and performed) vocalizing is so calculatedly feel-good that the audience might well be divided among those who give in and enjoy and those who bristle at the manipulation.

Pasquale (Ted Brunetti) leads a trio of Italian-American doo-woppers whose shot at the competition is threatened when Chuck (John Leone) hastily drops out of the group. Seconds after Chuck storms offstage, Pasquale hears the dulcet tones of Milton (Harold Perrineau) drifting up from a sewer — a favored practice location because of the reverb. That Milton is African-American doesn’t stop the open-minded Pasquale from recruiting him for the competition, an invitation that doesn’t go down well with the whites or blacks buzzing around the two newfound friends.

Shades of “West Side Story”– complete with tragic ending and chorus-boy choreography — damn “Avenue X” to no-win comparisons. Though the similarities are almost certainly accidental, “Avenue X” simply is utterly devoid of originality, its every character and plot development filtered down through countless films and plays.

The string-pulling is only one indication of the musical’s artificiality, which elsewhere comes through in the brassy performance of femme lead Colette Hawley and the predictability of every plot twist. Cast seems to have been chosen for its vocal talents — which in many cases are considerable — rather than its thesp abilities.

Brokaw’s broad directing style, used to such good effect in enlivening the slyly subversive writing of Lynda Barry’s “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” here only magnifies the obviousness of Jiler’s book. Having the solemn-faced cast line up to sing the maudlin “Where Is Love?” not once but twice puts even the melodramatic “Blood Brothers” to shame.

“Avenue X” has been through no fewer than two workshop productions yet retains an unfinished feel. Time for all concerned to cut their losses.

Avenue X

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a musical in two acts with book by John Jiler, music and lyrics by Jiler and Ray Leslee. Directed by Mark Brokaw.

Crew

Set, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Ellen McCartney; lights, Donald Holder; sound, Janet Kalas; musical director and vocal arrangements, Chapman Roberts; choreographer, Ken Roberson; production stage manager, Lisa Buxbaum. Artistic director, Don Scardino; managing director, Leslie Marcus. Opened Feb. 21, 1994, at Playwrights Horizons. Reviewed Feb. 23; 141 seats; $ 30 top.

With

Pasquale ... Ted Brunetti Ubazz ... Roger Mazzeo Chuck ... John Leone Barbara ... Colette Hawley Milton ... Harold Perrineau Roscoe ... Chuck Cooper Julia ... Alvaleta Guess Winston ... Keith Johnston
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