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VIENNA –  Avenue X , Wiener Kammeroper, 12/16/04

A venue X shook things up during the staid Vienna holiday season. It took a decade for this award-winning a cappella doo-wop drama (seen December 16) to reach Europe (it had its premiere at NYC's Playwright's Horizons and subsequently had more than thirty American productions), and its expert mix of musical soul food and scungilli provides a vibrant alternative to the usual schnitzel served in these parts.

The eponymous street divides an Old World Italian neighborhood from newly-erected projects inhabited mostly by black families in 1963. Julia has worked hard to move her son Milton to Brooklyn (“You'd be dead or in jail in Harlem,” she tells him), but domestic tranquility is shattered by Roscoe, Julia's abusive, alcoholic, live-in boyfriend. Julia may be proud, but things are sufficiently inhospitable to make her take a bus to a black neighborhood to do her grocery shopping. Across the street, Pasquale dreams of a ticket out of Brooklyn when his singing group, the Velvet V-Tones, has a chance to score big at an amateur night at the Fox Theater. A good boy, Pasquale keeps tabs on his foul-mouthed, over-the-counter-drug-abusing sister Barbara and her rocky relationship with short-fused Chuck. Easygoing goombah Ubazz provides comic relief to the Italians, just as Afrocentric Winston does to the black family.

Unstable Chuck drops out of the group on the eve of the contest, and while Pasquale is sizing up the situation and practicing in the sewers (excellent acoustics there), he hears Milton echoing his high-flying falsetto. Despite initial antagonism and mistrust, the boys find hope in each other and share their dream of breaking away. Pasquale plans to conquer the Fox without the V-Tones, instead sharing the stage with Milton, a daring concept for the time and place.

Everything seems to conspire against them: fistfights explode across and within racial boundaries, and tragedy strikes just as Pasquale and Milton realize that in order to succeed, they need each other to create a new kind of harmony — musically as well as racially. At the conclusion, the rift across Avenue X seems deeper than ever before.

Ray Leslee's score features dense, complex harmonics and modulations, showing influences of classical and Eastern European choral music mixed with traditional Italian folk tunes, gospel and R&B. The blending of Pasquale and Milton in a falsetto one-upmanship would be the envy of any purveyor of bel canto , and the elegiac wail of grief that opens and closes the work is haunting in its stark power.

John Jiler's clever book at first seems predictable and faux-naïve, but it is a masterstroke of emotional manipulation: you swear you won't fall for it, but there you are with a lap full of soggy tissues at the curtain. The Italians get the funniest lines: Chuck wants to make love to Barbara by the sea, “just like the picture on the Trojans box.”

Gino Emmes, Joe Garcia, Murielle Stadelman, Bruno Grassini, Stephen Shivers and Axel Olzinger each get a chance to shine, performing entirely a cappella . They are nothing short of extraordinary, so it seems totally unfair to single anyone out, but Ramin Dustdar's volatile, tortured Pasquale and Carole Alston-Bukowsky's bold-but-vulnerable, victimized Julia hit me in a way that probably sent stock in Kleenex soaring.


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