Not only does this musical have soul, it also has a story with heart. The book is by Kevin Ray and Andrea Lepcio with an additional story credit to Suellen Vance. It takes place in Los Angeles at a jazz club called The Basket, located on Central Avenue. The time period is around the end of World War II. The Marcel family has just moved to Los Angeles from Yazoo, Mississippi. The father, William (Albert Christmas) and his two sons Bill (Joshua Boone) and Jim (Rod Lawrence) are all saxophone players hoping to break into the jazz scene in LA. They head to The Basket with an introduction from William’s niece, Gladys (Kimberly Dora Exum). Her husband Sonny (Britton Smith) plays trombone in the house band. The club is run by Thaddeus Clemens III (Juson Williams), a colorful character referred to as “the Mayor.”
It seems William doesn't have the chops to cut it in the LA music scene but his two boys just might. Bill is headed for success as a sideman with Duke Ellington. Jim wants to play modern jazz and seeks to find his own voice. This unfortunately leads him on a fast track to nowhere and he succumbs to a life of drug use. Even after his brother comes off the road and offers him a gig playing a recording date at The Basket, he blows it by showing up high to the gig.
Both the boys take their turn with bombshell singer and actress Jane Brooks (Rebecca LaChance). She tries to save Jim to no avail. One evening when his father goes out looking for him, he is set upon by thugs and killed, leaving their mother Martha (Stacey Sargeant) a widow.
The cast is immensely talented, and combined have a great vocal sound. They have taken Christopher Windom’s clean and clear direction and choreography and smartly given it life. One of the standout performances in this cast is Stacey Sargeant as Martha Marcel. She has a powerhouse number “You Make It so Hard” towards the end of the first act. Her character has you in the palm of her hand as you just fall in love with her. Occasionally she did have a slight departure on pitch, but overall Ms. Sargeant is solid. In the role of the two boys, Joshua Boone gives an assured performance as Bill Marcel, the confident, pulled together one of the two brothers. As Jim, the troubled brother, Rod Lawrence paints a bona fide portrait of a broken man. Juson Williams is the embodiment of Fats Waller as the Mayor. He sweetly woos Martha with the song “Martha” after her husband dies.
The scenic design by Jisun Kim is simple and practical, yet effective. The costume design by Janell Berté is sharp looking and true to the period. The production in general looks like it has had some money spent on it.
One of the only complaints I have about the production, was that the three men playing the Marcels didn’t actually play their instruments. This would be less of a distraction if the musician playing for them wasn’t sitting directly upstage of them. This became much less of a distraction over time because the three actors in the roles Albert Christmas, Joshua Boone, and Rod Lawrence gave such believable acting performances. They also confidently handle the vocals. It appeared as though they had worked with the musicians to actually learn the fingering on the instrument because they made it work. Although, as a former reed player myself, they were awfully cavalier the way they handled the reeds on those uncovered mouthpieces at times.
Central Avenue Breakdown has legs. This is the one piece I’ve seen at the festival this year that is near clean enough to pick up and move to a commercial run.