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THEATER REVIEW:Seeking Racial Harmony in the Musical Kind [Avenue X] (New York Times)


IF THE directors of the Passage Theater had dreamed up a show, it could have been "Avenue X." As if custom-made for the company in setting, size and theme, the musical should establish a recurring residency here. "Keep coming back," I'd say, "till you get it right."

Actually, at this stage, "Avenue X" is more than halfway right. What's right about it is inspiring and thrilling.

The time is 1963. The place is Gravesend, Brooklyn. Young people, hostile and divided, Italian-Americans and blacks (who happen to be the two largest ethnic groups in Trenton), rehearse for an amateur song contest to take place at the Brooklyn Fox, a grand movie palace of old, now demolished.

Milton is a young black man whose mother, Julia, and her lover, Roscoe, were once "the hottest act in Harlem." They pester Milton to go to church, where he sings in the choir. But Milton insists on singing doo-wop, a crossover form of popular music that served the purpose of integration not achieved by other means.

Pasquale, the Italian-American organizer of a singing group, hears Milton's voice emanating from a sewer, where he practices because the acoustics are great. Milton wants to sing with the Italian-Americans "for the sound." But to some people, the idea of an interracial singing group is alarming.

If "Avenue X" is telling us that music is the ultimate common language -- that its prerequisite, harmony, represents an essential universal goal -- let no one raise an opposing voice or criticize it for sentimentality. Throughout, Stephen Stout's staging epitomizes an intense struggle for an ideal.

In "Avenue X," animosities are unleashed, a rumble or two take place, best friends fight, but everyone harmonizes. Roscoe is in a perpetual rage. Chuck is the resident bigot. Ubazz is the obese, extraordinary Italian bass (profundo, to be sure). Pasquale is the leader of the pack.

Since the finger-snapping doo-wop style is associated with an all-swaying, all-smiling ingenuousness, John Jiler (book and lyrics) and Ray Leslee (music) are trying here to demythologize its beginnings, to put the realistic spin of not-so-happy days upon it.

Besides the bitterness of Roscoe (played and sung with true grit by the veteran Andre De Shields), the divisive presence of Winston, a Jamaican who talks about the Nation of Islam, upsets both the blacks and the whites. But before long, fast-driving doo-wop blends with blues rooted in the black soul. A once all-white neighborhood becomes a fusion of musical styles, all the more remarkable because this is an a cappella work, which establishes its own musical language.

In a great duet with Mark Krassenbaum (Pasquale), the mellow tenor of Forrest McClendon as Milton stirringly expands and improvises upon a note. Rudy Roberson (Winston) and Mr. McClendon share a terrific moment in an amazing tribal ritual of song and movement. In a fabulous number, Julia (Gwen Stewart) urges Milton to go "streakin' across the sky."

In isn't until an arbitrary, miscalculated climax, with the company singing a requiem, that one realizes "Avenue X" doesn't quite know how to wrap things up, despite a moving musical finale.

And it isn't often that a musical is reworked in regional theater after an attention-getting Off Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons. In the Passage staging, with numbers added and others eliminated, and an altogether new ending -- the third -- the show has, oddly, devolved. The Passage engagement signals a vital new beginning for "Avenue X."

For "the earth is coming apart," a member of the singing group tells us. "It's time to do something."

AVENUE X

Passage Theater Company Mill Hill Playhouse Front and Montgomery Streets Trenton.

Through next Sunday. Performances: Wednesday through Friday at 8 P.M.; Saturday at 3 and 8 P.M.; Sunday at 3 P.M.

(609) 392-0766.

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