Street Smarts

A pair of plays that hovers tantalizingly between success and failure caught my attention this past weekend. Both of them are commentaries on racial discrimination, and each is well-written and--unfortunately, in their Phoenix debuts--inexpertly directed.

Black Theatre Troupe's Avenue X, now playing at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, is almost certainly the only a cappella doo-wop musical ever written. Originally staged at Playwrights Horizons in 1993, amid the grandiosity of Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard, this big little musical soars without the help of pyrotechnics or prosthetic helicopters.

The story, with book and lyrics by John Jiler and music by Ray Leslee, takes place in 1963 Gravesend, Brooklyn, where cultural and musical mores are changing and a firm line separates Italians and blacks.

Pasquale and his pals are street singers who dream of winning Amateur Night at the Fox Theater, though lately, Chuck is more interested in Pasquale's sister, Barbara, who likes Chuck as little as she likes Brooklyn. After Chuck and Ubazz, the trio's timid, tongue-tied bass, abandon Pasquale, he hooks up with Milton, a sweet-voiced black kid who shares his dream of stardom.

What follows is the standard chapter and verse on racism, a sort of doo-wop cross between Showboat and West Side Story. Happily, there's precious little story and quite a lot of singing, all of it spectacular. Jiler's and Leslee's superb score evokes a mess of musical styles--doo-wop, soul, gospel, blues, African, even a little scat--captured at a time when sweet sounds were being traded up for the rudeness of rock and roll.

The script's few surprises fall like half-notes between these swell songs and include a violent wind-up and a shocking speech from Milton's parents that reveals their own dashed dreams: Once successful singers themselves, they were passed over by a record label executive who told them that Steve and Eydie might be singers, but black duos were simply "a couple of apes."

It's plain that most of the cast were hired for their singing talents, though both Teresa Springer and Joey Hallatt turn in striking performances as would-be lovers Barbara and Chuck. As Pasquale, Stephen Goodfriend is another exception; he sings and emotes with equal aplomb, though his accent is fleeting and more Borscht Belt than Brooklynese. And someone ought to tell director Wanda McHatton that not all Italian girls from New York are wisecracking molls who chew gum while they talk. (An actor I know told me that Phoenix Theatre's Allan Prewitt was called in at the 11th hour to bail McHatton out, but neither director was able to overcome several meandering scenes and actors who sometimes speak their lines in the direction of their loafers.)

I didn't mind that some of the acting was subpar or that the direction was all over the map, once I heard these folks sing. Michael Alexander's Milton might easily have won any amateur night with his powerhouse harmonies, and Cordell Conway's honey-voiced vocal on "'Til the End of Time" recalls Sam Cooke at his peak. By far the best vocal performance comes from the youngest cast member: Seventeen-year-old baritone Christopher Purdy's solo on the Verdiesque "Io Sono Copsi Stanco" is the show's one transcendent moment.

Thom Gilseth delivers scenery that's well-designed and appropriately seedy, backlit by tavern signs and enveloped in chain link. And Michael J. Eddy's diverse lighting design renders perfectly a dank sewer, a subway platform and a crowded traffic island.

Average acting also plagues Planet Earth's Real Women Have Curves, a show that--despite its title and the reputation of its producing company--is not about transsexuals. This dramedy, set in a Los Angeles sweatshop, follows a work week in the life of five Mexican-American women. Playwright Josefina Lopez, barely 20 when she wrote Real Women in 1991, captures perfectly the chatter of five full-figured gals trapped in a life of drudgery and discrimination.

The narrator, a 20ish aspiring writer (clearly based on Lopez herself), spends a good part of this shortish two-act trying to convince her co-workers (one of them her mother; another her sister) that they're out of touch with the ways of women today. There's a lot of talk about what defines "a real woman," and Lopez clobbers ageism, sexism, and looksism (much of her dialogue is about chiquitas gorditas) without ever sounding preachy.

The story, based on the author's own experiences in a sewing factory, has a curiously mixed vision: there's a buoyant optimism to her tale of a young illegal immigrant trying to make a go of her own business, but there's also a fixed tension, a dark anger lurking beneath the laughs.

Most of the punch lines get misplaced, anyway, thanks in part to Cindy Wynn's wobbly direction. The audience didn't seem to know that they were watching a comedy for the first 15 minutes or so, and many jokes were met with stony silence.

But neither unfocused direction nor a stageful of energetic, but mostly untried, actresses can ruin Lopez's vivid comic dialogue. She still has something to learn about story development (I would have preferred a less hopeful, more realistic conclusion than this one, which sends the women strutting down an imaginary runway toward a future as owners of a designer boutique), but her narrative is really only a garment rack on which she hangs some sharp dialogue about the state of postfeminist, white-bread America.

As with Avenue X, I exited the theater wanting to see a professional production of the play. There was still enough to like about both productions that I left satisfied that I'd passed a pleasant--if not enormously enlightening--couple of hours at the theater.

Black Theatre Troupe's production of Avenue X continues through Sunday, November 1, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland. Real Women Have Curves continues through Saturday, November 14, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela