All art forms evolve, but musical theater has evolved rather dramatically. It wasn't long ago that "musical" meant "musical comedy": funny situations, clever lyrics, memorable songs, that kind of thing. The musical was big and showy, heart-warming and often subversive. Dolly danced with an army of waiters. Seven brothers performed ballet for their seven brides. Annie got her gun. Even darker musicals, like Man of La Mancha and Follies, had their big-band currents.
Eastburn Avenue, a world premiere performed by the Playhouse REP, is part of the New School of musicals: The situations aren't funny, the songs don't have to be snappy or melodious, and the lyrics only occasionally rhyme. (Typical verse: "I can't believe she said that / God, what a bitch.") The music isn't divided into songs; the singing has simply replaced spoken dialogue. Many Broadway fans find this liberating -- the drama enhanced by the voices and orchestra. Others find it irritating: Why don't they just talk, like normal people? Eastburn Avenue has a lot of cacophonous contemporaries -- Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd -- musicals that behave like opera, with endless recitative and almost no humor whatsoever.
If you like talk-singing, then Eastburn Avenue is as good as they come. Each actor sings beautifully throughout; more importantly, they are all magnificent actors. They mix speech and song like ingredients in a cocktail, and the effect is intoxicating.
If you don't like talk-singing, Eastburn Avenue is grating and sentimental and much, much too long. The story concerns an urban Jewish family and their many arguments: Grandma is a beloved matriarch but she's dying, and her jewelry and cash are split among bickering children and grandchildren. Harsh words are spat and secrets are grudgingly revealed. There's a bankruptcy lawyer, a tormented mother, and a failed playwright, but alas, this is one Jewish family that raised no therapists. And man, could these people use one.
What makes this production endearing is its author, Marcus Stevens, who wrote the book and lyrics and also stars. Stevens is among Point Park University's most successful recent alumni, a Civic Light Opera golden boy who can do seemingly anything. He's probably weary of critics calling him "talented," because he's also sparklingly intelligent. Stevens' characters are detailed and unique; it's hard to imagine that this opus is wholly fiction.
Like his previous musical, Red, Eastburn Avenue struggles hard to make us think and feel, aided at every measure by Douglas Levine's meticulous score. Do you walk out humming? Probably not. Does it matter? It depends on what kind of musical you like.
Eastburn Avenue continues through June 15. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445.