Some people don’t like the musical Avenue Q. These are probably the same people who don’t like hot fudge sundaes, puppies and beach volleyball. Okay, that may be a little unfair (they probably abide puppies), but what’s not to like about a tongue-in-cheek musical with puppets that takes on racism, homelessness and homosexuality, amongst other topics, and keeps you smiling from start to finish? Done right, Avenue Q is a hoot, and it is being done very right up at Playhouse on Park under the capable direction (and choreography) of Kyle Brand.
So, what is this Tony-winning musical that had its gestation (2002) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, all about? Well, it takes the PBS children’s show, Sesame Street, and turns it on its head – focusing on a group of primarily twenty-something losers and misfits who reside on an avenue of stifled or shattered dreams (apartments on Avenues A through P were too expensive). Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who came up with the concept), the two-act show’s major premise is that most of the characters are puppets manipulated by actors who mirror the puppets’ actions and emotions. It’s a delightful symbiotic relationship.
Ruling the run-down roost is Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) – yes, the Gary Coleman best known for his role as Arnold Jackson in TV’s Diff’rent Strokes. Fallen on hard times, he is the superintendent of the apartment building where all of the other characters live. Seeking low-cost shelter, Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), a frustrated college grad with a “useless” degree in English, is soon introduced to the building’s other residents. There’s Kate Monster (Ashley Brooke), a kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening a school for little “monsters,” and the roommates Rod (also Long), an uptight banker, and Nicky (the versatile Peej Mele), a layabout. Then there’s Brian (James Fairchild), a stand-up comic with no sense of humor, and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (E J Zimmerman), a true tiger lady. Finally, there’s Trekkie Monster (Mele), a creature with an inordinate interest in Internet porn and the Bad Idea Bears (again Mele and Colleen Welsh).
I can’t think of another musical that so brazenly takes the frustrations and despair of the downtrodden and turns it all into delightful comedy. The tone is set immediately as Princeton laments the uselessness of his degree (“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?’), which segues into “It Sucks to Be Me,” in which the characters argue about who has the worst life. The audience has to quickly buy into the puppets-as-people-and-people-as-puppets premise, but it’s not hard to do, for this skilled ensemble of actors ably crafts the illusion (or delusion) with insouciant style and elegant flair.
I’ve seen several productions of this musical and am familiar with all the musical numbers, but the Playhouse’s production, with its fine cast, made the musical offerings seem fresh and new. Each number offers some standout performances. To single out a few, there’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” with Zimmerman nailing the faux-Japanese delivery of her lyrics (those of an extreme PC bent might squirm a bit). Zimmerman also soars with “The More You Ruv Someone” number – I’ve never seen it performed with such panache.
The multi-talented Long continuously delivers, no more so than, as Rod, he desperately tries to deny his homosexuality in “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.” It’s a wonderful moment, with Long whirling and leaping about the stage as he attempts to sell his friends on the existence of this fictitious friend named Alberta…from Vancouver, no less.
Citing the “The Internet is for Porn” number allows me to heap praise on two other actors: Mele and Brooke. Mele is able to embody the perverse weirdness of Trekkie Monster, the devious, manipulative nature of one of the Bad Idea Bears, and the needful nature of Nicky with wondrous ease. Then there’s Brooke, who effortlessly owns the stage whenever she is called upon to portray Kate Monster or the teacher’s alter-ego, Lucy T. Slut (often at the same time). It’s a treat to watch her “merge,” if you will, with the two puppet personas (personae??) – tentative and a bit shy when she’s Kate, slinky and seductive when she’s Lucy.
As an audience member, one often never really knows who is responsible for what in a production. So, who was responsible for training these actors in the manipulation of their puppets? Perhaps it was the director, or maybe it was a collective effort, but if you read carefully through the Production Staff listings you will come across the name of Susan Slotoroff, credited as the “Puppetry Coach.” Well, she should get star billing, for the result of her coaching is well nigh perfect. From opening scene to the closing number, the puppets are “real,” with the actors giving these furry creatures believable body language (just watch Kate Monster and Princeton go at it as they consummate their relationship, or Princeton [the puppet] flat on his back enduring deep despair). It’s an exercise in stage magic that makes Avenue Q somewhat unique.
Now in its ninth season, Playhouse on Park continues to offer productions that often delight and sometimes even surprise. With Avenue Q, which runs through October 8, the Playhouse shows that you don’t need a huge stage to deliver big entertainment. You just need to pick the right property, cast wisely and then allow all involved to do what they do best.
For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org