By Olivia George
The show, set in 1940s Los Angeles, has a driving jazz score and is told almost entirely through song. “Central Avenue Breakdown” tells the story of Jim Marcel (Rod Lawrence), a hot-blooded young alto sax player, and his brother Bill (Joshua Boone), a sensible but accomplished tenor. Neither man is afraid to step on his brother in order to be heard himself.
Though packed full of potential, this performance still has some significant hurdles to jump. Ray’s music is exciting and extremely demanding, and the cast assembled at the Signature Theater was apparently not quite up to the challenge. While the first few numbers went off impressively, the actors quickly began to struggle.
The two exceptions were Rebecca LaChance and Juson Williams. LaChance, a Tisch alum, plays Jane Brookes, the Hollywood star and femme fatale who comes between the Marcel brothers. LaChance’s voice never falters, and has a sultry nightclub edge to it.
For his part, Williams is delightful in the role of Thaddeus Clemmens III, the unofficial mayor of Central Avenue, and the cheerful narrator of “Central Avenue Breakdown.” His downright jolly performance of “Way Out West”—a jaunty tune defending LA compared to New York—is one of the show’s standout moments.
It is too bad that Lawrence, in the leading role, seemed vocally strained, forcing riffs that should feel more natural. That said, his shortcomings as a singer may almost be overlooked due to his expert execution of his character’s downward spiral.
Though he doesn’t have much to lose in the first place, Jim Marcel falls into the world of drugs that so often accompanies jazz music. This convention could easily feel clichéd, but Lawrence manages to make it honest and ultimately tragic. The audience can’t help but feel gutted when he hands over his saxophone for a hit in a heartbreaking—if predictable—moment.
As it stands, “Central Avenue Breakdown” is rocky at best, but with some sizable cuts (at nearly three hours, the show ran far too long) and focused refinement, it could shape up to be a very moving piece of musical theater.
The last performance of the New York Musical Theater Festival’s “Central Avenue Breakdown” was on July 22nd, 2012. For more information, see www.nymf.org.
Olivia is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.