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"Avenue Q" - Costa Mesa Playhouse

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Christmas Eve: "Brian and I never fight. I yell, and he do what I say...”

As a post-modern, breakthrough musical of a very different stripe, “Avenue Q,” winner of the Tony “Triple Crown” for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, is part flesh and part felt, but packed with plenty of heart. Directed by Scott Silson, the long-running Broadway hit packs its rollicking musical with irreverent wit, feisty, profane songs, and downright hysterical puppets that say the darndest things. Currently, in its intimate venue at Costa Mesa Playhouse, the show is just as fresh and delightful as ever, where it’s set to close this coming weekend.

Of all the musicals hatched in the post-2000 age of irony, this cheeky satire of children's television shows like "Sesame Street," “Fraggle Rock,” and “The Muppets,” has arguably remained the edgiest and funniest, especially for the younger, hipper crowds that traditionally flock beyond the Main Stem. No matter what the topic – racism, homosexuality, unemployment, downsizing, porn, or politics – there’s a song full of sophisticated humor and creative choreography that delivers a powerful shock punch line bolstered by rapturous laughs. Songs like “It Sucks To Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” and "Schadenfreude" are current, topical, and downright waggish, gleefully trampling on the audience’s expectation that these bug-eyed moppets will be sweet and cuddly.

They’re not. Instead, they’re raunchy, neurotic and feckless. Shaggy Trekkie Monster stays in his room all day surfing the Internet for porn. Lovelorn Kate Monster (the sparkling Melissa Musial, “Avenue Q,” “She Loves Me”) has big dreams of starting a "Monstersori" school for young "people of fur," but when Princeton asks if she and Trekkie are related since they are both monsters, she gets a giant chip on her foam rubber shoulder and angrily pronounces his assumption as racist to her "Monster" ethcnic group. Later, she innocently loses her student teaching gig with her boss, Mrs. Thistletwat, after a drinking binge with Princeton, and thinks all her dreams are dashed.

This cross-species parody mix of puppets and humans center on our hero, Princeton (Cole Fletcher, “Singing in the Rain,” “Parade”), a well-meaning recent college grad who moves to this outer borough of Manhattan, New York City, with Big Apple-sized dreams and gets a much needed real-world education from his neighbors. Princeton is caught in limbo between childhood and adulthood. He wants to discover his "purpose," and that desire both shapes the play and fuels much of its cruel fun, especially when Princeton ends up jobless, single and influenced by a pair of malicious but cute teddy bears straight out of a Stephen King novel.

Along the way, bouncy songs and sassy dialogue delve into topical issues such as politics, racism and bedroom mores. The perversely funny production is warm, endearing, and even heart-rending, despite the raucous, off-color humor, as the puppets love, yearn and bumble their way through messy, all-too-human hardships and missteps. The musical is intended for mature audiences only, by the way, unless you’re into that sort of thing. The show may be a bit hard to define, although I would say it’s an existential cross between “Rent” and an R-rated "Sesame Street." In fact, it even includes a scene of wiggly puppet sex which no doubt would be triple-X rated if performed by real people.

Key to both the tear-jerking and side-splitting: the score, written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, along with a book by Jeff Whitty, which captures the cheery feel of a children’s television show, all the while, stuffing in taboo-skewering lyrics. Tunes such as “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” doesn’t skimp on the jokes, but not every song drips with the same acerbic wit. In one scene, the hairy behemoth Trekkie Monster (played by Zachary Balagot, “The Fantastiks,” “Guys and Dolls” ) belts out a knee-slapping song called "The Internet Is for Porn." But later on, a recently dumped Kate Monster sings, "There's a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time," in a moment of show-stopping vulnerability and painful honesty.

At one point a pile of packing boxes spring to life as the back-up chorus for a dance number. In another, protagonist Princeton rages through a rebellious rock anthem, “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” filling “Avenue Q” with a crux that lurks just beneath its fuzzy, politically incorrect exterior.

The three human characters in “Avenue Q” are unemployed comedian Brian, bear-huggably played by Peter Hilton (last seen in “Of Mice and Men” and “God of Carnage”), and Japanese psychologist Christmas Eve (Bachi LaSarge, reprising her role in “Avenue Q,” and “Little Shop of Horrors”), a soon-to-be-married couple and both central characters. Counseling the romantically troubled Kate, Christmas delivers one of the show's wittiest coup de théâtre in a shivery, rafters-shaking alto, ''The More You Love Someone, The More You Want to Kill Him.'' And though you can construe the song as a satire if you choose, there is no doubt that Christmas means every word she sings.

The third human in the play is the building superintendent…You guessed it! It’s former child star, Gary Coleman! Natasha Reese (“Violet,” “Into the Woods”) aces her part perfectly as the tough talking “whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?” 80’s star from TV’s “Different Strokes.” Ms. Reese is phenomenal in the role and adds realism to the story, as well as zesty vocals.

Watching the performers manipulate their ingeniously designed, angsty, 20-something puppet-props (who have a striking, and probably deliberate resemblance to Jim Henson’s furry crew) with perfectly normal human reactions make you feel like they are all alive. But what makes the show unique is that the puppeteers do not take a back seat. They are upfront and visible, adding facial expressions, dancing and adding the human emotional element for the poignant parts of the story. Some of the characters are "live-hands" puppets, which require two puppeteers and add much more animation to the character, imbuing them seamlessly with life. That all this is not in the least confusing to the players or to the audience is a tribute to the cast’s skill, as well as Director Silson’s precise, unfussy direction.

The show neatly uses the shorthand of pop-culture references to quickly sketch in character. When Nicky confronts his uptight roommate Rod with the sung proposition that “If You Were Gay (It’d Be Okay!),” we instantly understand their relationship – this duo is so obviously Bert and Ernie, out of the closet at last.

Mr. Fletcher speaks not only for the callow Princeton but also for the buttoned-down broker (and repressed homosexual) Rod. Easygoing Nicky is portrayed by Mr. Balagot, performing character magic as he plays up Rod’s struggling sexual identity issues. Mr. Balagot, as mentioned, also voices the raspy, pornography-loving recluse, Trekkie Monster, almost an exact reproduction of Cookie Monster. The naughty Bad Idea Bears, the two blissfully obnoxious curmudgeons who resemble those hideous Care Bears and tempt other characters to do things like drink to excess, go home with strangers and consider suicide, is played by Rachel Williams and Andrew Cano.

All the puppeteers are extraordinarily talented and skilled with their fuzzy counterparts. Ms. Musial, for instance, is outstanding as both Kate and in her vamp-tramp role of bosomy night-club singer, Lucy the Slut, turning characters in a whisper of a moment from one to the other. Remembering these are inanimate objects, the art of vibing in on-stage chemistry so authentically with the tender-hearted Princeton is laudable.

Even the set is clever. Not an inch of space is wasted. Set designer Bradley Kaye uses a two-dimensional backdrop of rundown townhouses, replete with doors and windows that pop open like the flaps on an Advent calendar, transforming segments of the stage into a disco, an apartment interior, or even the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

The band, who also served as a disco band in one scene, is headed by Musical Director Briana Harley on Bass, Cheryl Gual on Keyboard, Angel Canal on Flute/Oboe and Sax, Dominic White on Guitar, and Nadine Torres on Drums.

The Stage Manager is Michelle Percival, Lighting Design is by Ryan Linhardt, Sound is by John McQuay, and Costumes are by Gina Mandelli, Laurie Martinez and Megan McCormick.

And, as most would expect, resolutions are just around the corner at “Avenue Q.” After a few setbacks — Princeton and Kate’s breakup, Nicky’s homelessness, Lucy’s near-death experience and Rod’s depression — Princeton finds that the act of giving is empowering. With the help of Trekkie’s bankroll, Kate finally has enough money to open a Monstersori school, and things begin to look up for the neighborhood. Rod is outed and takes back Nicky, and then some.

After Christmas Eve and Brian find new employment, their apartment is vacant and a new college grad inquiries about the vacancy in the building, ("What Do You Do with a BA in English,” Reprise). Suddenly Princeton has an epiphany: maybe his purpose is to put everything he learned into a Broadway musical. Everybody, especially the new guy, immediately ridicules him. The cast reminds Princeton that in the real world many people never find their purpose; but life does go on, and everything—both good and bad—is "only for now." ("For Now").

This incredible show has only three more days of performances left: April 19th, 20th and 21st. The newest update, however, shows Friday and Saturday evenings already sold out. Sunday still seems to be available, but you better hurry. Tickets are going fast—

This show is Highly Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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