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Going Places in the Berkshires July 16, 1996

Going Places

By Elyse Sommer

July 16, 1996

The second major production at the Barrington Stage Company-- Avenue X--once again establishes its artistic director Julianne Boyd as a risk taker. According to a pre-opening interview in The Berkshire Eagle even director/choreographer Eric Riley had reservations about accepting Boyd's invitation to mount this musical by Ray Leslee(music) and John Jiler (lyrics)) without dancing or glitzy sets and relying on music made by a single instrument, the human larynx. Fortunately, Boyd's adventurous spirit prevailed. And Riley and his musical director, Jerry Dixon have triumphed over the difficulties inherent in attracting audiences to a show with a no-name cast, a little-remembered musical style--doo wop--and a book that seems to cry been there, done that. Avenue X rewards its audience with an hour and a half of entertaining and heart-tugging theater.

The harmonies of the doo-wop style of the 1950's and early 1960's have been expanded to embrace a wider range of cultural influences. The story--I think music-driven story is a more appropriate tag than either musical or a musical revue--revolves around two young dreamers caught in the grip of their dreary and bigoted neighborhoods. The author and director's refusal to pander to nicely-nicely resolutions or characterizations is clear from the startlingly raucous note at the beginning. This ominous feeling is dispelled in the scenes that follow--only to return for an ending that leaves the viewer momentarily stunned.

The music and the simple plot device of a contest at the fabled Fox Theater in downtown Brooklyn are the drawbridge for both Pasquale, the Italian-American, and Milton, the African-American to move beyond the dreary and disappointed lives of their elders. The set pieces, two skillfully used and lit scaffolds, serve as visual metaphors for the promise of bringing the uneasy neighbors closer together. The scrim attached to the backs also gave a sense of a larger, fuller stage.

The cast works well together, with standout performances by Joseph McDonnell as Ubazz and Franz Jones as Roscoe, and "Where is Love?" the hit song. Having the male singers do some numbers in soprano voice is part of the a capella spirit. However, don't expect the kind of jazzy, full-featured acapella made popular by Bobby McFerrin or the electronically amplified finger snaps and hand claps and other human sounds that made the award-winning group Take 6 sound like a 16-piece band.

Avenue X is performed without an intermission, probably because a break would interrupt the emotional flow. From what I saw of the audience energy level at the Sunday afternoon performance I attended, no one was restless, including the many youngsters who were present. Laughter was vociferous, as was the applause at the end. Unlike so many audiences whose main conversation upon exiting is about where they ate or plan to eat, this crowd kept talking about the play. Some overheard comments. "I didn't expect anything like this . . . wonderful!"..."I' m emotionally drained, rung out!" Three couples who thought they'd ordered ticket to Three Viewings (which ended) seemed positively ecstatic over the mix-up, with one woman exclaiming "Weren't we lucky?!"

Avenue X will travel to other stages after its run at the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield ends on July 28th. Could it travel to Broadway like another bare-bones set musical, Rent? The answer is No. However, I do think it could do very nicely in the beautiful New Victory Theater which is dedicated to family audiences.

Some notes on Doo Wop. Like Rap this musical style had its origins in the streets of big cities. The reason for doing it in a capella was simple. The musicians couldn't afford to buy instruments. The name was typical of the repetitious use of meaningless words like "sha-na-na-nana." Avenue X depicts doo wop at the tail end of its popularity in 1963. Actually it peaked in the 1950's, a transition period from easy listening to Elvis Presley and before the term rock 'n'roll was coined by a disk jockey named Alan Freed. Another style dating back to this transitional period was rockabilly. This was a country rather than a city style, a brand of rhythm and blues developed by country or hillbilly singers. The addition of other cultural sounds to the doo wop in the Barrington Stage production is very much in keeping with the absorption of many sounds and styles into the musical stream.

Avenue X opened in 1994 at New York's Playwrights Horizon and ran for 48 performances with a cast that included Chuck Cooper, Jerry Dixon, Cheryl Alexander, Ted Brunetti, Kevin R. Free, John-Martin Green, Colette Hawley, John Leone, Wilbur Pauley, Wayne Pretlow, Paul Romero & Jerry Tellier © Copyright July 16, 1996 Elyse Sommer Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from

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