Get Ready for Puppets Gone Wild!
A show that would make Miss Piggy blush. This should give you a hint of what happens in “Avenue Q,” the naughty “Sesame Street” send-up that imagines a group of hopeful kids in the midst of a series of post-collegiate identity crises — trying to get a job, pay the rent, find true love and discover a sense of purpose.
“It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet Is for Porn.” Terribly un-PC, yet laced with kernels of truth—these are some of the songs from the delightful show that upset the 2004 Tony Awards, beating “Wicked” for best new musical. With concept, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Frozen”) and Jeff Marx, with a book by Jeff Whitty, “Q” has enjoyed a circuitous, track-jumping ride from off-Broadway to Broadway and back. It has played Las Vegas, toured the globe and even survived the death of Gary Coleman.
Now, following a closure that lasted over a year, “Avenue Q” has returned to the Cupcake Theater Company in the newly renovated Hollywood Majestic Theater, where it opened last Friday in a freshly imagined, marvelously sung production directed by Brayden Hade, musically directed by Dylan Price and choreographed by Rehyan Rivera. Produced by founder Michael Pettenato, the madness continues through February 13th.
Featured in the cast are Lexi Collins (“Topsy Turvy: A Frozen Parody”) as Kate Monster/Lucy T. Slut; Cameron James Parker (“Bat Knight”) as Nicky/Trekkie/Bad Idea Bear; Connor Bullock (“Legally Blonde”) as Princeton/Rod; Renée Cohen (“Peter Pan”) as Mrs. T/Bad Idea Bear; Amber France (“Spring Awakening”) as Gary Coleman; Alex Butte (“Les Miserables”) as Brian; Amanda Tugangui (“Fun Home”) as Christmas Eve; Kristen Daniels (“Hairspray”), Jewell Valentin (“The Producers”), Dominique Kent (“Dreamgirls”) and Marissa Frankie (“Miss Saigon”) swing the roles.
The performers—people and puppets—are flawless. Especially fascinating is the way the puppeteers mirror the physical expressions of their inanimate, but highly animated charges. Their ability to convey mood and emotion is remarkable, and it infects the audience. Oftentimes in musicals, one must choose to cast actors who can sing or singers who can act. Here, the task is a degree more difficult, as the piece requires puppeteers who can both act and sing really well.
Watching them bring shadings to the boundaries between cloth and flesh is a pleasure, as their characters wrestle with issues of jobs and relationships, homosexuality, racism, drugs, alcohol, Internet porn, and yes, sex. Or I should say Sex with a capital S. All with two smiling, adorable Bad Idea Bears encouraging the residents to walk on the wild side. It's at once deliciously shocking and rib-tickling hilarious. I may have even pulled a muscle.
The story opens with naive newcomer Princeton, an unemployed English Lit grad, who arrives in an “outer-outer borough” of New York City with the obligatory bag of dreams and the equally compulsory empty pockets. Idealistic and starry-eyed, he stares into the audience and sings, in a voice, shiny, ringing with hope, ''Something's coming, something good.''
He stumbles onto Avenue Q ("I started at Avenue A," he tells the residents, "but everything so far is out of my price range"). There he meets other tenants: a slacker comedian named Brian and his Japanese wife-to-be, Christmas Eve (an unemployed social worker); Bert ‘n Ernie clones Nicky and his repressed roommate, the buttoned-down broker, Rod (who yearns for a male partner, just doesn’t know it yet); marriage-hungry Kate Monster (a young teacher’s assistant - for a while anyway, with whom Princeton quickly falls into, out of, and eventually back into love); a hairy recluse named Trekkie Monster who lives for untrammelled internet porn, and Gary Coleman (yes, that one - the child star from “Different Strokes,” who is now the building super). Princeton moves right in.
And so, the story unravels. The performers all make their characters believable, even under the most zany of circumstances. It truly is a marvel to see these actors make them come alive while also acting themselves. It’s a feat of voice, movement, and facial expression synergized to a wonderful effect.
If you think about it, it all makes sense that monsters intermingle with humans, that packing boxes and pizza boxes are as likely to break into song and dance as their human counterparts, or that TV icon Gary Coleman is on hand and being played by a woman (Ms. France). It’s just a street like anywhere else where puppets and people face real-world problems like poverty or broken relationships. But it's still a world where anything can (and frequently does) happen.
Beyond their irreverent wit, the writers demonstrate gleefully that ambivalence, indecision and low expectations can be the basis for a thoroughly infectious musical. But the strength of the show really hinges on Lopez and Marx’s songs, which in fact are really novelty numbers. They do manage to skewer well the singsong style of those well-known educational “Sesame Street” ditties, but they also come off as twinkly, melodic, and disgustingly irresistible (''If You Were Gay,'' ''Schadenfreude,'' ''The Internet Is for Porn”). Again, all very politically incorrect, but they get away with it because they’re mostly sung by cuddly-looking puppets.
“There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” tap a sweet poignancy that’s never cloying. And “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” may not be the most hilarious and raunchiest number about sex in musical history, but it’s a strong contender.
The three “humans” almost steal the show. Alex Butte is remarkable as Brian, the wanna-be comic who doesn’t wear underwear and is largely a punching-bag for his unapologetically overbearing wife, Christmas Eve, played loud and proud by the truly excellent Ms. Tugangui. A highlight in the show is when Christmas Eve temporarily drops her habitually pinched voice to deliver, in the show's wittiest coup de théâtre, a full-throated, rafters-shaking ballad in the manner of a 1950's musical diva (''The more you love someone/The more you want to kill him''). You can construe the song as a satire if you choose, but there is no doubt that Christmas means every word she sings.
Of course we cannot leave out Amber France, one of the best singers of the bunch, and is a tremendous Gary Coleman. Lewd, washed-up, yet fully in charge and utterly amusing—his/her gyrations with a broomstick are but one of many sparkling moments of physical comedy.
We also have Connor Bullock’s vocal gymnastics with easy-going slacker Nicky, as well as the fascinating Rod, who is suddenly panic-stricken that he will be outed, yet seems to find the swish of musical-theater while singing about his imaginary girlfriend (“My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada”), which has one of the most shocking lines in the show. Needless to say, unprintable.
Mr. Parker is a spot-on ringer for Trekkie’s Cookie Monster-like voice and handles the shenanigans for the “boy” Bad Idea Bear like second nature. Amazingly, he is supernaturally pitch perfect throughout. And dashing blonde Ms. Cohen tempts the cast via the “female” Bad Idea Bear with syrupy, so-funny manipulations. Then she does a Jekyll ‘n Hyde and transforms into the crabby, raspy-voiced schoolmarm, Mrs. T., who’s just had open-heart surgery. And Ms. Collins' puppetry fully embraces both Kate’s newly-discovered venereal yearnings as well as her rival’s alter-ego, a “hot for Princeton” bosomy nightclub singer named Lucy T. Slut, whose best asset is doing a “Willow Smith” sling-back with her hair.
The show’s concluding number, “Only for Now,” hymns the curse and comfort of the idea that nothing is forever. That might not be true for “Avenue Q.” They may not have legs of their own, but darned if those fuzzy foul-mouthed creatures aren’t still standing, long after more full-bodied competition has bitten the dust.
“Avenue Q” – Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; Book by Jeff Whitty; Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; Director Brayden Hade; Music Director Dylan Price; Choreographer Reyhan Rivera; Lighting Designer James G. Smith III; Sound Designer Marcos Rodriguez; Wardrobe Supervisor Leah France. The excellent 4-piece band, sitting high atop the action, includes Dylan Price on Keyboards, Alec DeKervor on Guitar, Sean Knapp on Bass, and Greg Niemi on Drums.
Performances run Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 7:00pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00pm. Tickets are $44-$78 for all performances. For reservations, please visit www.hollywoodmajestic.com
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report