Through Feb. 7. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $25-$60. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: Entertaining, in an unremarkable fashion.
By Bert Osborne
The Alliance Theatre is billing “Avenue X” as a “revolutionary” musical, presumably by virtue of the fact that the show’s tunes are performed a cappella. As conceived and written (book and lyrics by John Jiler, music by Ray Leslee), there’s certainly nothing else very groundbreaking about it.
Except that it features original songs instead of familiar hits, “Avenue X” is patterned after one of those nostalgic jukebox musicals, where snippets of dialogue and characterization mainly serve to bridge the gaps between all of the musical numbers. A tribute to the doo-wop sounds of the early 1960s, it’s better appreciated as a concert or revue than as a full-fledged theater piece.
The show’s semblance of a plot is at least as old as “West Side Story.” Set in 1963 Brooklyn (Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is a marvel), it involves the racial tension between Italian and black neighbors, and whether two kids from opposite sides of the block can overcome their cultural and musical differences to find just the right harmony to win a big talent competition.
Musicals will be musicals. In “Avenue X,” one guy starts out serenading a girl from beneath the fire escape where she’s standing, but ends up delivering most of his love song with his back to her, directly to the audience, flanked by a pair of buddies as backup singers. The rival “gangs” might be beating each other to a pulp one minute, dancing and singing along together in upbeat tempo the next.
The use of a lot of R-rated profanity in the show is initially disorienting. In contrast to the gritty ghetto language, it’s downright quaint that the only drug problem at hand seems to be one girl’s cough-syrup habit.
Rebecca Blouin plays her in artistic director Susan V. Booth’s Alliance production, and in a singularly inspired moment from the show, she thinks she’s hallucinating after she takes a dose and notices part of the stage lowering from view — a throwaway bit, of course, that simply and inevitably segues into the character’s big signature number (the splashy “Woman of the World”).
Practically every member of the cast gets one: Neda Spears as a righteous mother (the spiritual “Go There”); J.D. Webster as a street-corner activist (the tribal “Africa”); even Lawrence Clayton as a drunk and abusive stepfather (“Command Me,” a snappy flashback to his Harlem past).
As the unlikely friends and singing partners, Nick Spangler and J.D. Goldblatt perform the bulk of the score with style and precision — under the musical direction of Darryl Jovan Williams — and frequently accompanied by Jeremy Cohen and Steve French as the other singers in the group.
“Avenue X” may make a perfectly acceptable diversion. But revolutionary? Coming on the heels of such safe bets as David Mamet’s oft-produced “A Life in the Theater” and a sequel of sorts to the comedy-improv show “The Second City,” this latest Alliance offering feels like the company is slumming it in more ways than one.