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Posted: Sun., Jan. 30, 2005 , 6:00am PT

Vienna crosses B'klyn 'Avenue'
Opera company gets a doo-woop do-over

By LARRY L. LASH

 

How unlikely is this? A 51-year-old opera company tucked in an alleyway trod by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss stages the European premiere of a doo-wop musical that becomes the hottest holiday ticket in Vienna .

That's what happened when the Wiener Kammeroper (Vienna Chamber Opera) tackled Ray Leslee and John Jiler's "Avenue X" in December. Rave reviews appeared in local, national and international press, and the box office took in more than it has for any production in five years. Young people are turning up in droves for their first visit to an opera house, and standing room is filled by newly formed fan clubs.

Connoisseurs of musicals from Germany and Switzerland, tired of endless local runs of "The Lion King," "Mamma Mia!" and "The Phantom of the Opera," have been flying in just to see the show.

National entertainment and lifestyle programs on Austrian TV broadcast three stories on the show and its cast, which is greeted nightly by the kinds of ovations normally reserved for rock stars. And the icing on this soul-food Sachertorte is that the production recouped its costs -- a modest $185,000 -- in less than a month.

"Avenue X," which preemed at Gotham Gotham 's Playwrights Horizons in 1994, tells of a racial clash between Italian-Americans and African-Americans during a hot, 1960s Brooklyn summer. Pasquale needs a last-minute replacement for his singing group after hotheaded Chuck drops out. Thinking only of winning a prize at an amateur contest, Pasquale crosses racial lines -- and the eponymous avenue -- by recruiting a black man from the projects, Milton . The ensuing familial rifts only deepen Pasquale's and Milton's friendship and their common goal of escaping the neighborhood. But bigotry and ignorance triumph, tragedy ensues, and the gulf across Avenue X is left wider than before.

A unique aspect of this musical makes it attractive to both audiences and producers: it is performed entirely a cappella, negating the cost of an orchestra. Indeed, Kammeroper is negotiating to extend the life of the show beyond its initially scheduled seven-week run (the company mounts five productions each year), and potential producers are among those flocking to the little opera house on Fleischmarkt.

Early birds can attend pre-performance lectures in German that clarify some of the more arcane Brooklyn patois (the show is performed in English with German supertitles). Show features an atmospheric, multifunctional set designed by Cordelia Matthes and superbly paced, pungent direction and choreography by Alonso Barros.

But it is the sheer visceral power of the singing that has made "Avenue X" a success, as performed by a talented ensemble: Netherlands native Gino Emnes as the volatile Milton ; Austrians Ramin Dustdar and Axel Olzinger as idealist Pasquale and his buddy Ubazz; Murielle Stadelmann, from Germany , as Pasquale's drug-abusing sister, Barbara; Italian baritone Bruno Grassini as Chuck. Three black thesps make up Milton 's extended family: Carole Alston-Bukowsky raises the roof gospel-style as Julia, Milton 's hardworking, conservative mother; basso-profundo Joe Garcia plays her abusive live-in boyfriend, Roscoe; and Stephen Shivers is the Afrocentric Winston.

The theme is surprisingly relevant to contempo Vienna : Racial tensions have been mounting since 10 eastern countries joined the European Union on May 1; Turkey is knocking at the door for EU membership and Austria is among the few nations voicing strong opposition. New epithets coined for ethnic minorities, especially those from the former Yugoslavia , can be heard on any street in Vienna .

Emnes tapped his own life experiences to delve into Milton 's psyche. "I grew up in a village where there were just three black families, but I always had white friends around me," he said. "Of course sometimes you heard something about your color, but you have to use that to strengthen you."

Ramin sums up the message of "Avenue X" as one of friendship: "If it's pure, it gives you the power to share visions and work to make them come true."

Copyright 2005, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.