Sunday, August 04, 2002

Avenue X (Cain Park)

Mind blowing 'AVENUE X' at Cain Park

Victoria Bussert, the Theatre Artistic Director at Cain Park and Director of Musical Theatre at Baldwin Wallace College, is at her best when faced with uncharted waters. Give her nontraditional scripts like 'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND,' 'SIDE SHOW,' and 'GOBLIN MARKET' and the lady rises to the occasion. This is again true with 'AVENUE X,' her latest challenge at Cain Park’s intimate Alma Theatre.

Bussert found the script while attending the National Music Theatre Conference where plays in their infant stage are presented for criticism and development. This was also where she found VIOLET, a previous Bussert production at Cain Park. As she revealed in a talk-back following one of 'AVENUE X'’s performances, “There is a whole new part of musical theatre besides 'OKLAHOMA'.” One of those new parts is the fact that AVENUE X is a musical performed without musical instruments. All of the singing is a capella. Another new part is the ability of present authors to go beyond happy endings and probe into more real and thought provoking story lines and conclusions. This is apparent in such contemporary shows as RENT.

'AVENUE X' is a kind of 'WEST SIDE STORY.' It is set in 1963 in Gravesend, a Brooklyn neighborhood where a recently built black housing project has encroached on a previously predominantly Italian neighborhood. The neighborhood immediately becomes a flashpoint for racial violence. The one commonality between the groups is music. Both groups are influenced by gospel, early blues and jazz of the Blacks, and opera, liturgical and common folk songs of the Italians. It is this thread that book and lyrics writer John Jiler and musical composer Ray Leslee have woven through 'AVENUE X.' It is this thread that leads to hope and finally despair in the story line.

In casting the show, according to Bussert, she had to find singers who were hybrid actors and could also work well with others. She states, “This is an edgy and ensemble piece. The actors had to trust one another.” She also indicated that with no orchestra the beauty of the human voice becomes paramount. There are no distractions, just the voices.

In the main, Bussert’s cast carries out her mission. Gary Walker sings and acts his way beautifully through the difficult role of Pasquale, an Italian teen who wants to be a musical legend and live in a penthouse. To accomplish this he has his sights set on winning a rock and roll contest. Originally he planned to partner with his best friend Chuck and their slow-witted neighbor Ubazz. Chuck’s temper and unrelenting pursuit of Pasqaule’s on-edge sister Barbara, get in the way. One day, while practicing in a sewer, which offers good acoustics, Pasquale meets Milton, an African American. In spite of their differences, their voices combine to create beautiful music. The rest of the play centers on whether the two will enter the contest, their ticket to leave their emotionally tormented existences. Derrick Cobey, as Milton, is Walker’s equal. He has a marvelous singing voice, a wonderful stage presence, and develops a believable character.

Dominic Roberts as Chuck and Trista Moldovan as Barbara, however, do not fare as well. In spite of their fine singing voices, they both use the single dimension of screaming to illustrate their frustrations. After their first tirade they have no place to build their feelings as the pressures increase.

Chad Ackerman has a strong bass voice and portrays well the intellectually limited Ubazz. He cowers from stress and is effectively confused by the world around him. Charles D. Martin was called into service only two weeks before the show opened when the actor portraying Roscoe, Milton’s step father, was struck with mononucleosis. He has a great singing voice and his rap song worked well. Colleen Longshaw wails as Milton’s mother. Ryan Green is effective as the voice of the rising black Muslim community who tries to recruit Milton.

The a capella musical sounds produced by the cast are the wonder of the show. They truly allow us to realize the line in the play, “God is sound.” Much of the credit for this production’s sound is music director Nancy Gantose-Maier.

Is this a perfect script? No. Some of the spoken lines are unnatural, forced. Some of the songs have weak lyrics. It matters not. The production, which is graced with a creative and workable set by artist Russ Broski, overcomes the weaknesses.

As Bill Rudman, the narrator of the very valuable and well received talk-back section of the evening, indicated in his opening remarks during the talkback, “This is a mind blowing piece. It, along with numerous new shows, proves that the American musical is very much alive.” He went on to state, “This show never will be seen on Broadway, but who cares!”

Capsule judgement: What we, in Cleveland, should care about is that Cain Park continues to give Bussert the opportunity to produce such shows and she continues to seek out challenging new pieces and to present.