BWW Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood of AVENUE Q
Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty, Based on an original concept by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director, Catherine Stornetta; Choreographer, Ilyse Robbins; Puppets Conceived and Designed by Rick Lyon; Animation Design by Robert Lopez; Orchestrations and Arrangements by Stephen Oremus; Scenic Design, Kathryn Kawecki; Costume Design, David Cabral; Lighting Design, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Puppet Coach, Roxanna Myhrum; Puppetry Instructor, Jonathan Little; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Cat Dunham Meilus
Imagine a convoy of U-hauls snaking around the block on Clarendon Street filled with all the people jockeying to get into the Avenue Q neighborhood before rents go up or tickets run out. Whether you’ve seen the show before or not, you don’t want to miss the Lyric Stage Company production of Avenue Q which rivals the national tour that passed this way four years ago. Soon to be the number one seller in the Lyric’s 37-year history, AQ’s closing date has been extended (twice) to July 1st.
Director Spiro Veloudos, Music Director Catherine Stornetta, and Choreographer Ilyse Robbins have collaborated to make their Avenue Q an extremely desirable neighborhood, featuring one of the best musical ensemble casts of the season. Great voices? Check. Comedic acting skills? Check. Playful puppeteers? Check. Seven humans share the stage with nine felt or fur characters, and you could say that several symbiotic relationships have been formed among them. John Ambrosino, Erica Spyres, Phil Tayler, and Elise Arsenault meld hand-in-glove with their alter egos making it difficult to discern where the puppets end and the humans begin. Credit Puppet Coach Roxanna Myhrum and Puppetry Instructor Jonathan Little from the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline with seamlessly indoctrinating the foursome into the world of Puppetry Arts.
Puppets have burst onto the scene in a number of shows this spring, but none of the others (except, perhaps, Little Shop of Horrors) features them as prominently or places them in the position of carrying the storyline. Avenue Q introduces Princeton (Ambrosino), a recent college grad with no job and no skills, who can’t afford to live anywhere else. While settling for an apartment in this shabby borough, he ends up getting much more than he anticipates. His eclectic neighbors include Kate Monster (Spyres), an assistant Kindergarten teacher; Brian (Harry McEnerny V), a 33-year old unemployed comedian, and his fiancée Christmas Eve (Jenna Lea Scott), a Japanese social worker who lacks paying clients; a closeted Republican financier named Rod (Ambrosino), who shares an apartment with his slacker friend Nicky (Tayler and Arsenault); Trekkie Monster (Tayler), an internet porn addict; and the building’s super, former child star Gary Coleman (Davron S. Monroe). As Princeton searches for his purpose, along the way he must deal with temptations placed in his path by Lucy The Slut (Spyres), an oversexed cabaret artist, as well as the two Bad Idea Bears (Tayler and Arsenault).
Each of the characters is given his or her due as the storylines intersect and gently convey many life lessons. It is difficult to see Avenue Q without thinking Sesame Street for grownups (it does contain puppet nudity), and the clever use of a flat screen television strengthens the connection with that iconic program. A quick perusal of the song titles gives a clue as to some of the more adult content, including homophobia, racism, porn, sexual fantasies, and Schadenfreude. However, even these challenging topics are handled with sweet sentimentality and the most disturbing remarks are tempered by the fact that they are being “spoken” by puppets. It is fairly obvious when a statement is made for shock value (and I noticed a few audience members who reacted as if they had been jolted), but I think it’s all part of the charm of the show.
Charm is what Avenue Q has in abundance and in particular with this energetic and earnest young ensemble. Ambrosino’s voice matches perfectly with Princeton’s personality (so to speak), and Spyres shows her acting range playing pragmatic Kate and vamping as Lucy, and offers a very touching vocal in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” Tayler’s gruff growl gives Trekkie a Cookie Monster sensibility, and Arsenault never misses a beat sliding from one puppet to another. In the original and on tour, Gary Coleman was played by a woman, but Monroe brings his dancing skills and personal panache to the role. McEnerny and Scott have great timing and chemistry with each other. As a unit, they shine on the songs for the full company (“It Sucks To Be Me”, “For Now”).
Kathryn Kawecki’s set perfectly represents the shabbiness of the neighborhood and provides the necessary doors and windows for the characters to pop in and out of scenes, reminiscent of the wall on the old Laugh-In show. Franklin Meissner, Jr.’s lighting design handily changes from the street, to interiors of apartments and the nightclub, to spotlighting individual performers. The actors who manipulate the puppets are dressed in black, but the puppets do have several costume changes, courtesy of designer David Cabral. Brian always wears shorts, but he dons black ones with a tuxedo jacket for his marriage to Christmas Eve, whose usual colorful kimono is replaced by a white wedding dress. Sound Designer Arshan Gailus provides a good mix between the vocals and Stornetta’s behind the scenes five-piece orchestra.
Avenue Q started as an Off-Broadway show from March to May, 2003, where it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, before transferring to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre in July of that year. It ran for 2,534 performances, was nominated for six Tony Awards, and won three for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Original Book, before closing on September 13, 2009. There have been tours, both domestic and international, a Las Vegas production, and an Off-Broadway revival that continues to run. The Lyric Stage Company version further enhances its reputation and adds to its track record. However, it must eventually go dark and, as the song says, Avenue Q is only “for now.”