Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang / Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay!
The Alliance Theatre's a cappella musical Avenue X affirms that doo-wop music can be as catchy as it is corny. The sight of scatting white guys swaying in unison may induce unwelcome flashbacks to "Uptown Girl"-era Billy Joel – until you catch yourself snapping your fingers and tapping your feet in time.
By staging a musician-free musical, the Alliance Theatre might launch an a cappella resurgence, assuming one hasn't started already. Horizon Theatre's Black Pearl Sings, opening in March, showcases the African tradition of a cappella music. Whether through Avenue X's old-school doo-wop and R&B tunes, or through more contemporary variations, the a cappella musical style seems perfectly in tune for our times, especially in live theater.
The financial advantages are obvious. In a lean economy, musicals with huge casts become prohibitively expensive, but imagine the savings when the cast is the band. In 2004, the Alliance's Susan V. Booth directed a pared-down My Fair Lady with two pianos and a cast of about 10. Avenue X, which features no musicians and a cast of eight, carries the less-is-more aesthetic even further.
Plus, a cappella performance brings its own kind of drama. A unique energy and excitement accompanies singers unsupported by backing musicians, as if they're performing without a net. Arguably, a cappella diminishes the artificiality of the musical format. In Avenue X, it feels more natural when characters break into song at park benches or kitchen tables, since there's no invisible orchestra providing fanfare.
A cappella even fits a cultural landscape dominated by singing contests, particularly "American Idol," each season of which begins with a cappella auditions. NBC even has an a cappella "Idol" imitation called "The Sing-Off," made up of contending teams of crooners who really, really want to be famous. A cappella allows more singers to share the spotlight, without fears of upstaging the rest of the band.
A papa-oom-mow-mow, a papa-oom-mow-mow, doot doot doot!
Nevertheless, Avenue X partially misfires as an opening shot of the a cappella revolution. The Alliance Theatre stages a breezy, entertaining production of derivative material. With book and lyrics by John Jiler and music by Ray Leslee, Avenue X offers a plot that could be called "West Side Story, with two guys." Booth and company clearly recognize such similarities as having a young man on the street serenade his ladylove on a fire escape. Todd Rosenthal's impressive set features a towering framework of fire escapes, some without visible means of support. Nevertheless, Avenue X's familiarity breeds a little contempt over the course of the evening.
The play takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the entrenched Italian residents bristle at the influx of African-Americans. Pasquale (Nick Spangler) preps his amateur doo-wop trio for a big talent contest, but his friend Chuck (Jeremy Cohen) drops out: He's so in love with Pasquale's aloof sister Barbara (Rebecca Blouin) that he can't focus on the songs. While practicing in the sewer – for the acoustics, you understand – Pasquale meets new neighbor Milton (J.D. Goldblatt) and discovers they have similar musical inclinations. Through their gradual partnership, Avenue X playfully demonstrates the differences in singing styles. Pasquale hits a note and moves on, while Milton draws it out soulfully. Pasquale and Milton consider performing together at the contest, even though their duet will challenge racial hostility.
Milton's bullying stepfather, Roscoe (Lawrence Clayton), opposes Milton's ambitions to sing due to the older man's disappointments as a performer. The show's highlights come when the rival groups confront each other in the street and reluctantly perform each other's tunes. Pasquale's vaguely pervy teeny-bopper tune "She's Fifteen" gives way to Roscoe's earthy, bluesier "Big Lucy." Although the play takes place in 1963, the repertoire expands to include a gospel-inspired number, an Afro-beat tune from Milton's friend Winston (J.D. Webster), and several lovely, operatic Italian ballads. (An a cappella show could even hark further back to Gregorian chants and barbershop quartets, or anticipate the piping pop of Bobby McFerrin a generation later.)
Jiler and Leslee clearly know their musical idioms, and the show's original songs could qualify as B-sides of doo-wop hits like "Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)." Individually, however, they're not especially memorable and seem elevated by the performers, more than the other way around. While the plot would adequately link famous songs in a jukebox musical like Jersey Boys, it's embrace of clichés reflects a lack of imagination in an all-original show. Lines such as "Every time I look at you, I smell the blood from the pork store!" elicit pity for the performers.
Clay Benning's sound design mostly keeps out of the singers' way, but provides haunting echo effects as well as the suspenseful rumble of an oncoming subway train near the end of the play. The show's most memorable sound effects come from the throat of Steve French, the lanky bass singer who looks a little like an elongated Sam Rockwell and has a voice that makes a foghorn sound like a castrato. Despite the hackneyed plotting, Avenue X showcases a cast of effervescent performers whose harmonizing, like the best a cappella songs, works like an infusion of raw happiness. It's like an antidepressant that you listen to.
Sh-boom, sh-boom! Ya-da-da da-da-da da-da-da da!