. Forget the puppets. Forget the set. Forget the orchestra. And definitely forget cute.
is a passionate, interesting doo-wop musical, sung entirely a cappella by excellent actors with gorgeous voices in 11th Hour Theatre's production at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.
Written by John Jiller (book and lyrics) and Ray Leslee (music), Avenue X is set in 1963 pre-gentrified Brooklyn, when immigrant Italian families in their fiercely insular neighborhood found themselves living across the street from black families in newly built housing projects. Everybody knew not to cross the street in either direction. But this being Avenue X (there really is one), the show, like the letter, requires the intersection of the two.
Pasquale (Michael Philip O'Brien) has a doo-wop group hoping to win a contest and a ticket out of the neighborhood. Chuck (Kevin Duffin), a virulent racist, is in love with Barbara (Laura Catlaw), Pasquale's sister, who keeps herself high on cough syrup just to tolerate the claustrophobia. Ubazz (Craig Patrick O'Brien) is the basso - necessary to the harmony but nearly mute with stupidity. Their songs are all the usual Danny-and-the-Juniors teenage drivel with great falsetto riffs.
When Chuck drops out of the group, Pasquale discovers a replacement when he finds another singer also using the sewer with its great acoustics as a practice room. Milton (Lee Edward Colston II) is black, and although an interracial doo-wop group is an outlandish and hazardous idea, for a while it looks as if music can triumph over racism. But this is a musical tragedy, not a musical comedy, without any such comforting delusions.
Milton is pulled in several directions: toward the church by his mother (Toneisha Jones Harris) with her roof-raising gospel voice, while her boyfriend Roscoe (Forrest McClendon), a dangerous, embittered drunk, offers a sexy, smooth R&B style - his rendition of "Command Me" is a knockout. Pulling Milton in yet another direction is Winston (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) a proselytizing Afrocentric Muslim whose high-energy number, "Binadamu Weusi," is ferocious. The group songs, from the feisty "Big Lucy" to the fervent "Why," are the most impressive.
Megan Nicole O'Brien's direction makes remarkably good use of the little stage and insists, as true musical theater must, that singing is as natural as speaking. The fight choreography (Darren Michael Hengst) is terrific, the lighting (Shelley Hicklin) evocative, and the sound design (Mark Valenzuela) gives us all the subway and the traffic sounds we need to believe it's Brooklyn. Go see it.
11th Hour Theatre Company at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. Through June 21.