Overheard during intermission at Avenue X, the current production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis:
"How do you like it?"
"The singing's great."
"Well, the singing is the show."
There, in a nutshell, is the good news and the not-so-good news about the a cappella musical Avenue X. The street of the title bisects the Italian and African-American sections of a Brooklyn neighborhood, where the action takes place on a single day in the summer of 1963. Three young men -- Pasquale (Jon Stewart), Chuck (Bradley Dean) and the mentally deficient Ubazz (Michael Sharon) -- are all set to be discovered at a talent show that night; music is one of the few ways out of the neighborhood. When Chuck, lovesick over Pasquale's sister Barbara (Kim DiMasi), impulsively quits the group, Pasquale discovers Milton (J. Cameron Barnett), a kid from the projects, while rehearsing in the sewers (the acoustics are better). Pasquale overcomes his prejudice and asks Milton to fill in, igniting racial tension, testing loyalties and leading up to the expected tragic ending. All the songs, mostly doo-wop with some blues, gospel and opera thrown in, are sung without accompaniment, which may not sound pretty to the ears of union musicians but is a treat for the audience.
The cast, which also features Corey Reynolds, Jeffery V. Thompson and Virginia Ann Woodruff, is an amazing collection of exhilarating voices that fill the theater with sounds so complex and powerful you're convinced there must be 10 more people singing offstage. Given the time and place, the a cappella choice makes great stylistic sense. When the characters are rendered inarticulate by emotion, they quite naturally turn to the means of expression they've grown up with -- singing. This is the stuff musicals are made of.
Unfortunately, the songs themselves fall short. Although mostly fun, they have little to do dramatically or thematically with the story or characters, and this is the major flaw of the show. Except for Barbara's "I want" number, "Woman of the World," and the wistful "Where is Love?", the songs are interchangeable, neither advancing the action nor revealing a specific character. Because it's the act of singing that brings people together or pits them against each other, it falls to the hardworking cast and director/choreographer John Ruocco to pump subtext into the musical numbers. As a result, the stakes never feel as high as we're told they are, and the manufactured conflicts of Jiler's unimpressive script end when the songs start and pick up again afterward. To cite only one example: Chuck sings "Palermo" to woo Barbara, and although it's quite natural for this character to use an Italian folk song in this situation, it's that choice, and not the song itself, that tells us something. So we listen to the very pretty song while the story is put on hold. The harmony of the doo-wop is supposed to be an ironic counterpoint to the tension of the character's lives, but the songs are so upbeat that they seem to be fighting the book, and the book loses. Presenting big themes is not the same as exploring them.
Leslee wisely varies the music a bit, giving us a waltz in Act 2 and the charming "Io Sono Cosi Stanco," delivered by DiMasi and Sharon as they swing on a playground made sunny by John-Paul Szczepanski's beautiful lighting. Though lip service is paid to Pasquale's music's being influenced by the Beatles, as opposed to Roscoe's blues and Milton's gospel, it's all, to paraphrase Billy Joel, doo-wop to me, and by the fifth or eighth song begins to sound repetitive.
But boy do they sound good, which gets us back to that audience member's comment. The Rep audience obviously didn't mind the repetition or the book's weakness and were on their feet at the end of the show to give the cast a well-deserved ovation for their remarkable vocal abilities.