The Avenue He's Takin' You To

Al Dubin was talented, troubled, and tough to portray

The production relies heavily on a constant stream of energetic musical numbers, as the cast of nine sings and dances its way through one Warren/Dubin tune after another. Director/choreographer Kay Cole has a knack for staging these numbers, and her straight scene direction is crisp and detailed. But she hasn't found the emotional/dramatic payoffs that aren't explicit in the script. Early in the show, Dubin, in Europe, and Helen, in New York, exchange letters. Cole stages this from the far ends of the proscenium -- the distance makes sense in the situational context. But the emotional surge of the letters, which get progressively more intimate, is lost in the staging. The actors never meet. With no kiss, no hug, no contact, there's no theatrical or emotional payoff. Sure, they are physically far away in the narrative. But emotionally they meet, and we want them to. Much of the rest of the show also suffers from such literalism. Only in the second act, when Dubin laments his outcast state, do the ghostly figures of Helen and Warren loom up around him, reprising some of their earlier dialogue. This kind of phantasmagoric imagination is precisely right but regrettably scarce.

The cast features Jordan Bennett, who is flat-out spectacular as the ebullient, tormented Dubin. Bennett's silky, powerful singing voice is matched by his expansive, driven characterization. He is well-paired with Elizabeth Ward Land as his cool, long-suffering wife. Bennett and Land nail some of the show's dreamier romantic numbers, such as "For You" and "I'll String Along with You." Then, as their marriage starts to crumble, Land puts her bluesy, torchy mark on "Painting the Clouds with Sunshine" and "September in the Rain." When these moments happen, this show levitates.

But it quickly settles back down to earth. While the supporting cast is solid if not stellar, playing an array of Hollywood stars that Dubin encounters, they are burdened by a series of dramatically and emotionally irrelevant production numbers, many of which serve the purpose of displaying parts of the Warren/Dubin repertoire that could easily have been pared away. The same can decidedly be said of Bradley Kay's lumbering set, which appears to have made injudicious use of the massive brick walls and steps from Romeo & Bernadette, CGP's previous tenant; that also suffered from the misapprehension that more stairs, flats, and arches makes for a better show. Word to all: It doesn't. It just makes for longer, fussier scene shifts.

Al Dubin (Jordan Bennett) soared with the likes of Ruby Keeler (Beth Curry), and crashed with equal force
Al Dubin (Jordan Bennett) soared with the likes of Ruby Keeler (Beth Curry), and crashed with equal force

Details

Book by Joel Kimmel, lyrics by Al Dubin, music by Harry Warren, directed by Kay Cole. With Jordan Bennett, Beth Curry, Troy Britton Johnson, Elizabeth Ward Land, Mary Jo Mecca, Rick Negron, Fleur Phillips, and Randy Slovacek. Presented through March 9 by the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove, 305-442-4000.

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Nobody has asked me, and, trust me, after this review, probably nobody will -- but here's my prescription for Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Give Dubin's inner conflict more focus earlier on, dump all the brick set pieces, clear out the space, let lighting designer Steven Young carve it up with lights, then take Kay Cole's tentative second-act staging ideas and let them run free from the first scene onward. Think theatricality, not realism. One minor carp: Cut the Carmen Miranda sequence, "South American Way." Most of the cast has no clue how to move to a Latin beat, and the number looks like something from the Stockholm Sound Machine.

Is all of this so far-fetched? I don't think so. Michelangelo, according to legend, explained his sculptures this way: He just looked into the stone, saw what was trapped within, and chipped away what wasn't necessary. Time to chip away on this Boulevard. Time also for the Coconut Grove Playhouse to start selling itself as "theater in the making." Watching shows come to life can be downright addictive.

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