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October 05, 1998 - Image 9

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1998-10-05

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The Michigan Daily -Monday, October 5, 1998 - 9A

:A~venue' grooves A2

By Garth Heutel
For the Daily
"Avenue X: the a cappella musi-
cal," which opened under the direc-
tion of Darryl Jones on Sept. 24 at
the Performance Network, is unique
ip its genre for two distinct reasons:
the show is performed completely a
ppella, and this is one of the few
usicals that incorporates the music
into the story.
The music doesn't merely add fla-
vor to the work; it is an integral com-

Avene X:
the a cappeila
formance Network
Sept. 24. Oct. 18

ponent that
cannot be sev-
ered. It's not
hard to picture
"West Side
Story" without
the music
did), but try
the same
thought exper-
iment with
"Avenue X"
and you are
left with a
blank. It is that

dependence on the music itself that
fakes this play so powerful and.
'e I say, real.
Starting with the abstract prologue,
we are drawn into the world of these
characters. This envelopment gets a
food deal of help from the splendid
set designed by Daniel Walker, which
skillfully incorporates the perfor-
mpance space into the action. The
eiaracters connect with each other, as
O quickly obvious, through music. It
is as if the world stops turning when
ey start harmonizing; all of the tra-
, ls of their lots in life, all of the
danger and suffering, take a back seat
to the singing. Surprisingly, it works.
The two lead characters are
Milton, an African American son of a
former Harlem musical duet, and
Pasquale, an Italian-American mem-
,Oer of a doo-wop a cappella group,
bath of who dream of ridding them-
selves of their unenviable positions in
* city. Donny McNeal and Curt
Waugh shine vocally and theatrically
as the two bound to meet and attempt
to overcome their prejudices.
They do just that, while everyone
around them does everything in their
power to stop their prejudices from
happening. Granted, the story isn't
all that original, but it is told in a
,style so new that audience members
quickly forget that they've seen this
erous times before.
ith tunes ranging from '50s juke

box pop to opera, the songs, written
by John Jiler and Ray Leslee, are
quite varied, if not all that spectacu-
lar. The lyrics especially often find
themselves lacking, "My underwear
would all be silk/I'll take a bubble
bath in milk." But, as with the plot,
it is not so much substance as it is
style. The majority of the songs are
meaningless in themselves, and
wouldn't work independently of the
play (consider the bizarre ditty about
pedophilia, titled "Fifteen"). But
that doesn't matter, because it is
what the characters are doing with
the songs, and what they are feeling
as they are singing them that matter.
Jones clearly realizes this and skill-
fully manipulates his actors to
emphasize the relationships and the
importance of music in the charac-
ters' lives.
The best example of this phe-
nomenon is midway through the
first act, when all of the male char-
acters, three black and three white,
perform a medley of songs, none of
which is singularly memorable.
The scene as a whole is a captivat-
ing exposition of the characters
drifting together and falling apart
in tempo with the music. What
starts out as two heterogeneous
groups of people gradually
becomes a blended melange of
voices, all singing in harmony. And
mere moments after the 'music
ends, they're on the floor in a clum-
sily executed battle royale. Once
the music is gone, so is the connec-
tion, and all that remains is igno-
rance and hatred.
On a whole, the cast is adequate
when it comes to the vocals,
although Jodie Kuhn Ellison as
Barbara has some trouble maintain-
ing pitch. The musical highlight of
the evening is Rhonda J. Williams,
as Milton's mother Julia, singing
"Go There." The control she has over
both her voice and the nuances of
her character come together beauti-
fully in the song, as we see her
painfully trying to decide what is
best for her son, based on what she
has learned from her own past.
"Avenue X" is a musical theatre
experience like no other. The music
and the plot will move you, not for
their originality or depth, but for
the ingenious way in which they
are both so totally connected. And
as for all of the snooty enemies of
musical theatre: I strongly suggest
broadening your mind, and this is a
great place to start.

Continued from Page 8A
My Most Beautiful," also set to
appear on "Up." Although Stipe had a
bit of trouble with the timing of the
first verse, the song reached its apex
midway through, as Stipe gently
crooned, "I count your eyelashes
secretly/ with every one whisper, I let
you sleep/ I found a way to make you
"I thought Philip would do an inter-
esting job," Stipe said of the proposed
duet. And Glass seemed quite pleased
with the duet himself.
"That was the first time that song
has ever been done in public," Glass
said after the show, "and earlier, I
said, 'Michael, I'm going to do it very
simply.' And he said, 'that's good,
that's what I want.' And I played it as
simply as 1 could - just a few
chords, really. So that was really
Glass said he welcomed the oppor-
tunity to perform with Stipe and
looks forward to another joint effort
in New York City in February.
Stipe also looked forward to col-
laborating on "At My Most
Beautiful" with Glass again.
"I can't wait to reprise it," he said
to Glass after the performance. "I'm
really excited. Maybe we can get
some scudding cello, or some nutty
violin. It'll be really fun."
Stipe's contribution to Friday
night's benefit was his way of not
only showing his respect and appreci-
ation for Ginsberg, but also for Smith
and Glass.
"Just as a friend, I admired him a
lot," Stipe said of Ginsberg. "He had
a curiosity about him that I find real-
ly rare and inspiring - and a great
sense of humor."
Smith and Stipe have grown espe-
cially close over the past few years.
Stipe joined Smith on a 1995 tour
with Bob Dylan and snapped the pho-
tographs that are featured in "Intro:
On the Road With Patti Smith," a
revealing, behind-the-scenes look at
that event. Some of Stipe's photos
from that era are now part of an
exhibit currently on display at Boston

University through Oct. 23.
Stipe has frequently admitted that
Smith inspired him to get into music
in the first place. He has singled out
her album "Horses" as one of his
favorites, and he confirmed all of this
again after Friday night's show.
"She's channeling something that's
wholly not of this earth and extreme-
ly rare," Stipe said of Smith, "and I
just think she's one of the most sig-
nificant artists and performers of this
century - pure and simple. I have a
great amount of admiration for her."
Although he was approached to do
the Ginsberg event more than a month
ago, Stipe's busy itinerary of pre-
album publicity and video shoots for
"Up"'s first two singles "Daysleeper"
(Oct. 7) and "Lotus" had to be han-
dled first.
While he didn't promise that he'd
return to Ann Arbor for subsequent
Jewel Heart benefits, Stipe did
express strong feelings and support
for the cause.
"I had a great time tonight, and I'm
really glad I came," Stipe said. "I was
in L.A. and New York (last week),
then New York again, Georgia for
four days and then I'm off to Miami
and San Francisco, so I was just able
to kinda squeeze it in, but I really
wanted to come. I do have great
admiration for Philip and Patti, and
also for Allen and his memory, and I
wanted to honor that by coming in
and, in my own little rag-tag way, pre-
sent something."
All three artists provided a beauti-
ful evening of music and poetry. The
relaxed atmosphere was free from the
clutter of excess instrumentation and
was transmitted with the candid com-
fort of a private conversation.
Stipe's genuine persona and witty
sense of humor carried through to his
last words. When asked if Ann Arbor
had any special significance to him.
he joked, "You mean, did I ever get
laid here? Is that what you're ask-
"I don't recall," he laughed. "I
think maybe - yah, I don't remem-
A mischievous smile suddenly
crept over his mouth. "I hope I did."

Continued from Page 8A
remarkable denouement.
For their finale, Smith and the
gang launched into a repetitious,
eerily hypnotic groove that was
reminiscent of The Velvet
Underground's "Heroin."
With the musical backdrop
behind her, Smith chanted verses
from of Allen Ginsberg's trade-
mark "Howl" and was accompa-
nied by a Tibetan "singer" who
summoned guttural drones from
the depths of his belly that sou~nd-
ed like some unlikely cross
between a foghorn and a didgeri-
Upon conclusion of this, the
audience rewarded Smith's half-
hour set with a standing ovation.
The band was then joined by
Glass and Stipe, and the entire
gang drove into an emotionally
charged version of "People Have
the Power," a song originally pro-
duced by Smith's late husband,


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MCS leader Fred "Sonic" Smith.
The moment had obviously
touched a nerve in Smith's psy-
che and tears welled in her eyes
as she sang.
After another extended stand-
ing ovation, Gelek Rimpoche
came out again to congratulate
the triumphani performers and
adorn them with ritualistic
Buddhist scarves. Stipe, Smith
and Glass took their bows and,
after a good two hours, the show
was over.
The night truly had been magi-
cal. All of the artists played off of
each other to produce a fusion of
spontaneous artistic masterwork.
Ann Arbor is blessed to have had
such a rare event take place with-
in its confines.
Surely, collaborations of this
sort do not usually happen out-
side of New York and Los
Angeles, much less a small mid
western town. Somewhe're, some-
how, Allen Ginsberg must be



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