BWW Review: AVENUE Q at MTKC Pro
Audiences need an unusually silly mix of ingredients to love all the hijinks playing out on "Avenue Q" from MTKC Pro on the Block City Stage at Union Station.
Audience members must bring their own mixing bowls and be prepared to stir in a big heaping helping of familiar looking puppets, a snicker at stereotypical Broadway musicals, add a bit of the Simpsons for some spice, and pour in an homage or two to vintage TV shows like "Laugh-In" and to classic films life "An Affair to Remember." The familiar puppets are, it must be noted, more than a little ribald. "Avenue Q" is not for kiddos. It is, never the less, very funny stuff.
Here's the gag. "Avenue Q" is a twisted (in a good way) tale about coming of age in an era of the Internet, emerging sexual tolerance, persistent racism, an ever coarser society, evangelical Christianity, and a young person's dreams in a tough economy.
Princeton is a recent college graduate with an English degree. We guess he graduated from "Princeton" although that is never made clear. We find him on Avenue Q wondering what to do. His degree has not prepared him for anything for which there appears to be an opening and places to live uptown of Avenue Q are much too expensive. Princeton connects with the "Super" of a rundown tenement who happens to be faded TV personality the late Gary Coleman. Princeton books a room, but before he can move in, his prospective boss calls to inform him he has already been downsized.
Now remember, Princeton is a puppet albeit with a visible puppeteer. With a couple exceptions, everyone the audience meets is a puppet with visible puppeteers. All this is an obvious riff on Sesame Street regardless of all the appropriate denials that it is not. Each of the human actors represents someone of a different race (just like on Sesame Street). Almost all of the original Broadway actors in 2003 were alumnae of the real PBS program. A couple even went back to it.
The MTKC production of "Avenue Q" takes a slightly different approach from the original. It uses a screen and multiple projections for scenery. Avenue Q has most often been performed against multilevel backdrops of flats and platforms with practical doorways and windows. The typical set resembles the joke wall from "Laugh-In."
The use of projections is a valid choice in 2017, but they make the illusion that the puppets are alive a little tougher for the actors to pull off. The audience has always seen many of the puppeteers (sometimes two for a single puppet), but when they appeared in a window, stage or doorway they were a little more surprising. The good and bad idea bears often popped up like jack in the boxes to advise their puppet characters.
Director (and conductor) Julie Danielson has selected well for both her cast and her orchestra members. These folks can all sing pretty well and manipulate Brad Shaw's puppets admirably.
In addition to Princeton (Ryan Hruza), the other lead character is the female love interest Kate Monster (Kayli Jamison). Rod and Nicky are brought to life by Dashawn Young and Mitchell Ward respectively. Mitchell Ward doubles in Brass as the unforgettable Trekkie Monster. Callie Rodina is Lucy, Mrs T, and one of the two bears.
The human actors are Brea Clemmons as Gary Coleman, Brian (the comedian) played by Drew Szczesny, and his fiancé Christmas Eve (the Asian-American therapist) is Ai Vy Buy.
Everyone is good, but Kate Monster (Kayli Jamison) is the standout of this group. Kayli is an alumnae of the children's program at MTKC. She has developed a knack for making the audience forget that she is there. She has become the puppeteer and the puppet. This is no small trick and absolutely appropriate for this show. She makes it happen by virtue of her economy of movement. Kayli's body remains motionless until her character has somewhere to go. She keeps her weight on the balls of her feet, always steps off with her downstage foot, and pivots when she hits her mark to deliver her line.
For me, the Avenue Q story is engaging, true to itself, the music is catchy, and the lyrics are witty. But that is just me. I liked "Everybody Is A Racist," "It Sucks To Be Me," and the immortal "The Internet Is For Porn." They crack me up. But then I have a twisted laugh reflex and I realize that many of the people in the audience and on the stage don't remember the allusions because they were not yet born. I guess I'm getting old.
Avenue Q continues on the City Stage at Union Station through April 8. Tickets are available at the MTKC website http://www.mtkc.org/tickets.html or by telephone at 913) 341-8156.
Photo courtesy of MTKC Pro and photographer Vivian Nazzaro.