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‘Avenue X,’ An A Cappella Musical, Opens Off-Broadway

February 21, 1994

NEW YORK (AP) _ Imagine circus tightrope walkers working without a net and you might have some idea of what the eight performers in ″Avenue X,″ the exuberant new musical at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, face at every performance.

They sing without an orchestra. Not even with a five-piece combo. Or a piano. It’s their voices against the world, and they triumph a cappella. There’s a purity to their sound that is mesmerizing, a hypnotic quality that makes the idea of no musical accompaniment seem perfectly reasonable and not a gimmick.

If the singers and their songs soar, the story and dialogue of ″Avenue X″ settle for something a little more earthbound. The time is 1963; the place, Brooklyn. And the tale could be a variation of ″West Side Story″ with a bit of ″Grease″ thrown in for comic relief.

Pasquale (Ted Brunetti) and his two pals, Chuck and Ubazz, are getting ready for a big talent contest - to be judged by Frankie Valli, no less - at the Brooklyn Fox. Hot-headed Chuck drops out and Pasquale wants to replace him with Milton, a young black singer, who lives nearby in the newly built projects.

Milton lives with his mother and her boyfriend, whose budding singing careers were detrailed years earlier by white record producers.

Yet the singers are divided by more than race. Their music, at first, also provides a barrier. Yet as the show’s creators, John Jiler and Ray Leslee, demonstrate, the different musical styles eventually serve as a way to build bridges.

On one side, you have the homogenized pop sounds of the white guy groups of the late 1950s and early, pre-Beatle ’60s. On the other, you have the gospel- tinged, rhythm ‘n’ blues melodies of black music before Motown moved out front.

It’s the music that brings both factions together and, not coincidentally, the show to life. In Act 1, there’s almost a strutting musical faceoff that’s a joyous explosion and a journey through several popular sound styles, white and black.

Each cast member gets a chance to shine. Brunetti has the swaggering appeal of a Dion DeMucci. His cohorts are Roger Mazzeo, a human foghorn, and John Leone, the evening’s nominal villain who precipitates the musical’s tragic ending.

Colette Hawley, playing Pasquale’s tough sister, is the brashest of girl singers with an explosive voice. She barrels through ″Woman of the World,″ one of the score’s better numbers.

Harold Perrineau, as Milton, offers a fine counterpoint to Brunetti, while Chuck Cooper and Alvaleta Guess are superb as the two older soul singers. Keith Johnston does as effective African number as Milton’s friend, a budding activist.

Director Mark Brokaw is stuck with two very different shows - one spoken, the other sung - performed on what looks like a gritty urban playground. He handles it as well as could be expected, although there is a stop-and-go quality to the production. If much of the lame, melodramatic dialogue threatens to sink the evening, there’s the music that makes one’s spirits rise.

Those songs - and their singers - make a trip to ″Avenue X″ a necessity for fans of novel, off-beat musical theater.

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