BWW Reviews: Manchester Musical Players Return After Hiatus with a Ribald Trip to AVENUE Q
Theatre: Manchester Musical Players
Location: Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road, Manchester, CT
Production: Book by Jeff Whitty, Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; Directed and Choreographed by Rob Thornton; Lighting Design by Jerry Zalewski; Sound Design by Jim Ryan. Through May 18; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.; Tickets $24, visit www.mmplayers.org or at door.
Judging from the Manchester Musical Players' Facebook page, the company's last full production was Annie, staged in 2011. With the loss of their building and questions of their ongoing viability, it looked like dark days ahead for this 50-year-plus Silk City mainstay. But, to quote a certain curly-topped moppet, "the sun will come out tomorrow!" Or three years later. The Players are back at Cheney Hall with the curtain rising on fare that is decidedly less family-friendly than Annie and a lot more riotous.
Avenue Q snatched the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical from out of the hands of the Wicked Witch of the West, no mean feat considering that eleven years on, Wicked is still playing to packed houses on Broadway. Avenue Q has kept playing, too, but downsized and Off-Broadway. While Wicked's status as a classic seems fairly assured at this point, Avenue Q still offers many naughty pleasures and sympathetic moments.
For those of you who have yet to see the show, Avenue Q is to the post-collegiate crowd as Sesame Street is to the pre-K set. Both integrate humans and puppets of various races. Both take place on an urban street. The difference? One show prepares kids for school by teaching numbers and the alphabet, the other demonstrates how ill-prepared kids can be for the real world after they get their Bachelor's Degree.
Princeton, charmingly played with innocence by Scott Gilbert, arrives on Avenue Q looking for a place to live after college. He quickly meets the residents of his new neighborhood and discovers that life is quite a bit uglier than anticipated, but with friends at your side, things can turn out okay.
Despite the presence of puppets, this is certainly no children's show. Avenue Q's life lessons school the audience on sexuality, racism, homelessness, internet pornography, broken hearts, and dashed dreams. This may sound a bit heavy, but the show is light as a feather. The music, by co-creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is a wonderful cross between Broadway and Sesame Street. The lyrics, however, could teach your kid a thing or two you wouldn't want repeated at school.
The MMP production is far more accomplished than anyone would have a right to expect after a 3-year hiatus. The set is identical to the one on Broadway and the puppets, although not quite as up-to-par with the ones seen in New York, are professionally executed. The costumes are similar to the ones seen in the big city, as well. This, of course, shows a lack of originality and commits my cardinal sin of "borrowing" someone else's work without properly crediting them, but MMP has been away for a while, so I will it slide...just this once.
The vocal performances are top-notch. Gilbert and his co-stars Danielle Zaugg, John-Michael Whitney, Brad Stoll, Jenna Levitt and James Murphy sing the pants off a show that features a dose of puppet nudity. Deidra Jefferson has fun with the role of Gary Coleman, although sometimes she struggles to be heard over the super-sharp 5-piece orchestra. Yes, a woman plays the role and, yes, it's that Gary Coleman - one of the few jokes that no longer feels timely as the Diff'rent Strokes star has since joined many of his co-stars in Heaven.
As the puppeteers are constantly visible, some of the strongest performances are in the hands of those who understand that both the puppet and its manipulator must emote together. The best puppet performances belong to the aforementioned Brad Stoll, Ryan Pipke (as the delightfully perverted Trekkie Monster, a combination Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster), Rick Fountain and Leslie Bacon (as the hilarious Bad Idea Bears), Iesha Rose (as the hard-nosed Mrs. T.), and Theresa Elizabeth (as the neighborhood strumpet, Lucy the Slut).
One odd casting misstep is Jenna Levitt as Christmas Eve. Although in possession of a knockout voice and a wonderful sense of humor, the part is clearly written for an Asian actor. Since the role is written to exploit stereotypes of Asians who do not "ruv" how they are treated by "lacists," the performance sits a little uncomfortably when performed by a Caucasian.
Director Rob Thornton shows a professional level of commitment with the production and I urge you to support the show so we can see what comes next for a company that almost disappeared. Avenue Q is a winning and welcome return to Cheney Hall for the Manchester Musical Players. If you miss it, in the words of the show, it sucks to be you.
Photo of Scott McDonald, Ryan Pipke and Danielle Zaugg by Nick Repoli.