BWW Reviews: It Doesn't Suck To Be 'AVENUE Q'
You know you're in for an unconventional but naughty good time when a show includes graphic puppet sex, cute but sadistic bears, and a special appearance by TV's Gary Coleman. What can somewhat be described as a very, very adult-leaning, expletive-spewing cousin of the iconic PBS children's series Sesame Street, AVENUE Q-whose 2nd National Tour is now playing a too-brief, week-long engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through March 6-manages to be both entertaining and revolutionary.
A skewering yet charming musical parody of angst-riddled, post-collegiate adult life in a dilapidated lower-lower-middle-class borough of New York City, this groundbreaking show truly delights in the notion that life-as a grown-up-can be and is utterly disappointing... and that it isn't as filled with "sunny days, sweeping the clouds away" as we were first taught by Sesame Street's memorable theme song. Timely, surprisingly touching, mildly offensive, harmlessly risqué, and downright hilarious, AVENUE Q is easily one the smartest, funniest musical comedies ever to grace a Broadway stage in the last few decades.
A crowd-pleasing hit Off-Broadway before officially opening to more critical raves on Broadway in 2003, AVENUE Q defied prognosticators' predictions and won that season's Best Musical Tony Award (after a much talked-about campaign that urged voters to "Vote Your Heart"). The surprise win for the top honor came in a strong year that included Caroline, or Change and the blockbuster hit WICKED, but the show also earned cheered Tony wins for Jeff Whitty's aptly witty book and for the collaborative music-and-lyrics team of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. While lacking the bells and whistles of larger-scale shows, this cute little whippersnapper of a musical delivers the goods with engaging characters, edgy punchlines and a song set that will make Oscar the Grouch blush.
Structured like a lewder, R-rated stage spin-off of the TV series that inspired it, the show opens, naturally, with a titular theme-song that sounds just as peppy and bouncy-if only for its jaded lyrics that lists life's daily disappointments. Hardships are hopefully temporary, so they sing..." 'Til our dreams come true, we live on Avenue Q."
We first meet recent college graduate Princeton (puppeteered by David Colston Corris), who is puzzled as to what kind of job and life he'll have with a "useless" B.A. in English. Out on his own and apartment hunting, he stumbles upon Avenue Q (perceivably more affordable than the ritzier Avenue A, of course) and its broke but merry band of friendly neighbors.
One by one, we soon meet the other residents, complaining about the state of their lives, while having a spirited but friendly competition as to whose life "sucks more." There's Brian (Tim Kornblum), a recently laid off 32-year-old schlub whose dreams of becoming a late night TV comic are stalled by economic hardship (a common theme, it seems, among those living on this street). He whines alongside Kate Monster (puppeteered by Ashley Eileen Bucknam), a pretty and smart kindergarten teacher's assistant who dreams of one day opening an exclusive school for monsters. At the moment, though, she's more concerned about her perpetual dateless single-hood.
Next we meet bickering roommates, ne'er-do-well Nicky (puppeteered by Michael Liscio Jr.) and uptight Republican banker Rod (also voiced and puppeteered by Corris). Though messy and intrusive, Nicky is refreshingly open-minded and wishes his anal-retentive roommate would just come out already. Yes, dear viewers, their resemblance to Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street is by no means an accidental coincidence (it is also, perhaps, a subtle nod to those pesky rumors about Bert and Ernie's longtime "companionship").
Up next to vie for the "my life sucks the most" title is Brian's heavily-accented fiancée Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson) who, despite a Master's degree, frets over the bills because she's a therapist with no clients and is engaged to an unemployed, directionless Brian.
When Princeton arrives to try to rent the empty apartment in their shared tenement, Brian introduces the newbie to the building's superintendent: none other than pint-sized former child star Gary Coleman (Anita Welch). Allegedly robbed of his TV earnings by his parents, the now-broke actor is hiding out at Avenue Q from a world that constantly makes jokes about him or, worse, persistently asks him to recite that catch-phrase from Diff'rent Strokes ("What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"). Ultimately, the neighbors agree that Gary has it worst than anyone, but they also realize that misery loves company, and that together they can cope with it all.
As Princeton continues his desperate search to find his life's purpose, he quickly enters into a romantic relationship with Kate, much to her unbridled excitement. Meanwhile, Broadway-loving Rod refuses to acknowledge that he's gay, yet harbors a secret crush on his roommate. Along the way, we are also introduced to internet porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (voiced by Liscio Jr. with some puppeteering assistance from Kerri Brackin), sexed-up club singer Lucy T. Slut (handled also by Bucknam) who seduces Princeton into a one-night stand, and a cute but mischievous pair of "Bad Idea Bears" (also puppeteered by Liscio Jr. and Brackin) who somehow convince Princeton into doing very bad, sadistic things. (Sample taunt: "Take her home! She's wasted! Yay!")
Delightful as it is fiendish, AVENUE Q perfectly captures the nostalgic affection most young adults have/had for Sesame Street, but at the same time, upends and lampoons exactly what made the show so heartwarming and endearing to its fans in the first place: it's little life lessons targeted to the toddler and pre-teen set, offered with a spoonful of sugar by the most adorably custom-sewn creatures and their upstanding human friends.
But here in the cynical, financially-strapped world of AVENUE Q, the human/monster/puppet population-via some very cleverly written lyrics-touch on such hot-button adult subjects like unemployment, racism, internet porn, closeted gay republicans, selfless philanthropy, and even loud sexual activities. As you'll quickly learn throughout the show, you don't need Big Bird with a B.A. in English to realize that this show is purely for grown folks' consumption.
The laughs are seemingly non-stop, and luckily past productions must have taught this terrific cast to take longer beats between jokes so no witty lines or wonderful lyrics are obscured by the deafening eruptions of our collective laughter. AVENUE Q has no shortage of clever, snarky remarks about the world we live in, and with that, of-the-moment alterations have been applied to the show to keep it fresh, including a lyric change here and there or, in the case of this L.A. tour stop, a geographic name-drop (I won't spoil the surprises in case you have yet to see it).
Curiously, but ultimately a good artistic decision, the production has chosen to keep their characterization of Gary Coleman hilariously intact (with a few minor, virtually unnoticeable changes) despite the death of its real-life namesake almost a year ago. Inexplicably, perhaps because the character's real-life counterpart is no longer amongst the living, the portrayal for me feels somewhat more reverent than in previous productions-despite Coleman still being the object of a punchline or two. Here in the tour, though, it feels as though this version of Coleman-expertly acted and sung by Welch-takes unapologetic ownership of his unfortunate lot in life and approaches it all with good humor and, dare I say, a bit of humility.
Like its earlier incarnations, this second national touring company is helmed by its original director Jason Moore, incorporating the fabulous puppet creations of Rick Lyon, the melodic orchestrations by Stephen Oremus, and the peppy choreography of Kenneth L. Roberson. With the show now eight years into its existence, the show feels much more compact and zippier, moving from one song or one vignette to another, with a consciousness to not let any of the fun dissipate.
It's almost impossible to resist laughing with songs like "It Sucks To Be Me," "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," "If You Were Gay," "The Internet is for Porn," "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)," and, of course, that ode to the German-bred idea of celebrating the misfortunes of others, "Schadenfreude." The size of the Pantages' stage, of course, seems to dwarf the much smaller tenement set, leaving very Little Room to evoke any sort of intimacy this show probably requires. For large houses like these, perhaps upgrading the flat-screen monitors that hover above either side of the stage to much larger screen sizes (or even projections) is, I think, a necessary need... if only for audiences to truly enjoy those animated segments even from far away, in order to further complement its Sesame Street inclinations.
Somehow, though, everything about this show still works-thanks to the show's great, still-timely material and the stellar performances delivered by its masterful new touring cast. Leading the pack are Corris, Bucknam, Liscio Jr, and Brackin, whose on-stage multitasking (puppeteering multiple characters, each with distinguishable voices) is just astonishing. This show presents a unique conceit by asking the audience to ignore the fact that the puppets are handled live-right there in plain sight-by actual puppeteers who make no attempts to hide their moving mouths or their own facial expressions. Actually, after a while, you'll find yourself looking only at the puppets, though it certainly doesn't hurt to take a passing glance at the actor handling the puppets once in a while for a few complementary facial expressions and tics. Vocally speaking, Corris and Bucknam, in particular, share some beautiful harmonies together and shine wonderfully in their respective solos. Every single actor has a great singing voice, and Johanson's Act 2 aping of a Japanese-accented Judy Garland-type while warbling "The More You Ruv Someone (The More You Want To Kirr Them)" is seriously superb.
Giddily filthy yet still utterly adorable, AVENUE Q is truly a unique stage experience you need to enjoy live, and this touring production does not disappoint.
Photos of the 2009 touring cast of AVENUE Q by John Daughtry. From top to bottom: Nicky and Rod; Lisa Helmi Johanson as Christmas Eve; and Kate Monster. (Current 2011 cast photos were not available at press time).
Performances of the 2nd National Tour of AVENUE Q at Pantages Theatre continue through March 6, 2011. Ticket prices start at $25 and can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org or AVENUE Q's official site at www.AvenueQonTour.com.