HomeReview: "Avenue X" at Alliance Theater / Atlanta, GA

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Set in 1963 Brooklyn, Avenue X explores the tension of civil-rights era New York City through the context of African Americans and Italians fighting a proxy battle with a cappella!  After all, what better weapon to fight a civil-rights struggle than with the time-tested legendary assaults made by doo-wop upon the unsuspecting harmonically-challenged ears of uncouth heretics?  As we all know, this is the way the heathens have been tamed for time immemorial by the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Napoleon!  Wait.  Okay.  Umm, nevermind.

Let me start off with the good news.  The cast was phenomenal.  Kudos to the casting director for putting together such an incredibly talented and musically capable set of actors.  Actually, although each cast member's acting ability was excellent, I prefer to call them musicians who happen to be actors, as their musicianship was easily the highlight of the show.  They were incredibly tight, on-pitch, and blended seamlessly into an aurally delicious and rich chocolate mousse harmony perfectly balanced by the orange zest soloists that kept me awake, alive and eagerly anticipating the next bite of heavenly harmonic euphony.  Are you hungry yet?

While the cast's singing and acting was superb all around, the actual content of the play left me a bit underwhelmed, unfortunately.  The plot, to me, was a bit forced, and despite the a cappella twist and some admitted and welcome differences in plot details, the story's arc and structure somewhat smacked of a facile and hackneyed re-deployment of many of the themes of West Side Story: two young rival ethnic "gangs" in late 50s-early 60s NYC; they "battle" each other through music (and dance in case of the West Side Story); the "battle" leads to tragedy; failed attempts at finding peace between the rival factions, etc.

I don't mean to paint the story of Avenue X as being identical to West Side Story, as there were key differences in the plot.  However, when you have a premise that on the surface reminds the audience of a much beloved and classic tour de force such as West Side Story, it is a very hard act to follow.  One wouldn't mind gross similarities in plot, if the music had been tremendous, or the character plot motivation had been excellent.  Unfortunately, however, the musical score was quite a mixed bag, and the character motivations for their actions, fairly weak.

Some of the songs were superb, such as "Stay" or "Big Lucy", which were delivered brilliantly through the incredibly talented solo chops of Lawrence Clayton, who played Roscoe.  Other notable songs were "Prologue" and "A Thousand Summer Nights", which showcased the gorgeous harmonies of the cast.  The final song "Where is Love?" was excellent.  It did what a musical number is supposed to do: amaze, inspire and delight.  On the weaker side, "Serves you Right" and "Palermo" (despite being well delivered by Jeremy Cohen / Chuck) were just not entertaining, and were, to me at least, cloying, with weak melodies and harmonies.  And sadly, as we know, there is not much more to a song score than harmony and melody!

As for the character development, a decent job was done in the short amount of time available to the play.  One gets a pretty good fix on the nature of the main characters' personalities.  The plot and motivation surrounding the characters, conversely, was often half-baked, rushed, and not terribly plausible, such as a when Barbara resolutely dumps Chuck because he works at a butcher shop and smells of pork.  Admittedly many musicals, due to their penchant for interrupting drama with song, naturally don't often lend themselves to verisimilitude.

Despite some less than stellar plot structure, character motivation and the occasional weak song, Avenue X at the Alliance Theater is any a cappella fan's dream come true!  Much praise is due to the amazingly talented cast that made the most of the material they were given, and made the music sing (excuse the pun).  The acting, and especially the singing, were magnificent, with tightly woven harmonies and great soloists!  Congratulations to The Alliance Theater for pulling off a great show.  The show ran until February 7, 2010.


Avenue X Overall Grade: B+          

Overall Cast Grade: A
Overall Cast Musicianship: A
-Cast Lead Singing: A
-Cast Harmony Singing: A
Overall Cast Acting: A-

Overall Play Grade: B
Overall Music: B
-Melodies: B-
-Harmonies: A-
Overall plot: C+

About the author:
Failing to gain admission into an a cappella group early in high school, Adeel Pandith started his own group named The Contenders, his senior year. Sadly, they never were actually contenders for anything. From 1992 to 1994, Adeel sang bass with The Rensselyrics of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  He made his debut in Vocal Percussion (VP) from the fall of '97 to the fall of '98 as one of the original members of the The Rusty Pipes of RPI.  Since then, Adeel has performed VP as a member of Altavoz (from the winter of '99 to the spring of '00), and later in the professional group All About Buford (from its inception in April of 2000 until 2003).  During that time he performed at the NY and Boston regional Harmony Sweepstakes as well as with The Persuasions and Wayne Brady, among others. Professionally, Adeel is the life coach and founder of CoreVision Life Coaching LLC. Adeel can be reached at Adeel@CoreVisionLifeCoaching.com