Avenue X

World Premiere Recording, 1997 (RCA) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Avenue X shows how some folks in the racially divided America of the early 1960s tried to achieve peace and harmony through rock and roll. The theme is similar to that of Hairspray, but here the locale is Brooklyn rather than Baltimore, and the show ends in tragedy rather than joy. A highly unusual feature of this musical is that all of the songs are sung a cappella, persuasively performed on this recording by an excellent cast. There are only eight singers — Colette Hawley, Cheryl Alexander, Ted Brunetti, John Leone, John-Martin Green, Jerry Dixon, Chuck Cooper, and Wilbur Pauley — yet their vocal harmonies are so lush that they sound like twice that many people. (Dixon is the music director.) Indeed, the wall of sound heard in the arresting “Prologue” may convince you that you’re hearing an orchestra playing along. Rather than advancing the plot or establishing and limning the characters, the songs by Ray Leslee (music) and John Jiler (lyrics) are performance pieces that skillfully conjure the style of the period. Highlights include the ensemble number “A Thousand Summer Nights,” Hawley’s “Woman of the World,” and the two songs that end the show: “Go There,” in which Alexander laments “There are dreams that die before they ever live,” and the touching “Where is Love” (not to be confused with the song of the same title from Oliver!). The CD booklet notes tell us that, “following an extended run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, [Avenue X] played in roughly two dozen cities, winning ‘Best Musical’ awards and nominations virtually everywhere it has gone.” This recording is a winner, too. — Michael Portantiere