In Tune

Take some greased hair, tight T-shirts and witty dialogue, mix in a little gospel and doo-wop music, and what do you have? John Jiler's Avenue X, now in production at Theater LaB.

Originally produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York, Jiler's musical has over the last two years been fiddled with at workshops in regional theater cities across the country. It shows. Though there's much to recommend about Theater LaB's production, including some fine acting, the unevenness of the script indicates that Avenue X has been workshopped to death. Certain central questions about, for example, the parents of one of the main characters, the Italian-American Pasquale, are never answered, or even addressed. And the setting, 1960s Brooklyn, appears to be a feeble attempt to provide a political backdrop to a play more notable for its great musical numbers.

Set on the evening before a New York City-wide doo-wop competition, the play focuses on two protagonists: Pasquale (Mark Arvin), who lives on the Italian side of the Gravesend neighborhood, and Milton (Robert Hughes), the black kid who lives in the tenements. Doo-wop, with its finger-snapping harmony and a capella tunes, means we have plenty of scenes with actors singing alone underground, in the sewer (for the acoustics it provides). It's in the sewer that Pasquale and Milton meet while practicing their songs. And it's in the sewer that Pasquale convinces Milton that the contest is legit, and that as a team they stand a chance to win. The trouble they have keeping that team together provides the play's conflict. Think, say, West Side Story without the romance, but with a partnership.

The quality of the music is high here, and while it's often hard to find performers who can act well, sing beautifully and move adequately -- much less dance with some finesse -- director Robin Robinson has managed that trick. Arvin, a former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, is particularly appealing, seeming a mix of Ray Liotta and a slick young John Travolta. He plays Pasquale with just enough earnest bravado to make skirts flip; it does not hurt that, thanks to his dance training, he moves like silk.

Pasquale and Milton's partnership starts on shaky ground, since both of them are used to being the star. That ground gets even shakier when their friends and family -- neither side paragons of racial harmony -- enter the picture and do their best to split them apart. But what occasionally sinks this play is when a street fight between the black and Italian factions escalates right into, yes, a song. It's as if Jiler couldn't quite decide if the violence was real or not, and the fact that it's almost always played off into a joke destroys any social credibility the play may be after (and it's obviously after some).

What does come through clearly in this production, though, is the hopelessness that a rigid neighborhood such as Gravesend perpetuates. Though people are encouraged to stay with their own, they're not necessarily happy when they do so. As Pasquale's sister Barbara (Julia Kay) puts it: "I just want to go somewhere no one knows me and eat an English muffin for, like, an hour." Though she's not particularly central to the script, Kay makes Barbara's story edgy and compelling, in part because it's so utterly uncontrived.

Rodolphe Zarka's design is likewise uncontrived, and cleanly and wonderfully executed. The set consists of a rise of steps and two tall sections of chainlink fence, which the actors use to create a fluid space. There is, of course, the metaphor of separation, and the fence is used to suggest everything from a cross to a freeway overpass. Unfortunately, Bill McDonald's lighting doesn't follow the same lead; the result is relentlessly slow crossfades that kill the punch of the actors' quicksilver timing.

Still, engaging as the characters and the story can be, it's the music that causes you to catch your breath. While the group numbers might bring you to your feet, the song that delivers genuine hope and tenderness is "Go There," sung by Julia (Mozelle Moses-Felder), Milton's mother, to her son at a time when he has no reason to go on singing for anyone. There are few moments in any play that create a community out of an audience, but this song between mother and son is true and tough. And when it's over, everyone in the theater holds still for just a moment. -- Megan Halverson

Avenue X plays through June 2 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.


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