BWW Reviews: AVENUE Q at the University of Montana
The general lack of professional theatre (in its strictest terms) in Montana is both a blessing and a curse -- the most apparent point of its influence is that the community and educational art scenes in the State are forced to step up and fill the gap with brilliant work of their own. To this endeavor, the artistic team at the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance and the cast of Avenue Q triumph with distinction.
For those not familiar with the show (and all should be!) Avenue Q tells the story of young Princeton, who moves to Avenue Q after graduating college and, with his band of monster puppet friends and a few of life's surprises, tries desperately to discover his purpose for being. Student John Knispel brought to the role a vocal quality that, while maintaining a fluid and genuine character, retained a kind of classical beauty that not only made Princeton fun to watch but enchanting to listen to. His boyish good looks, affability, and stamina were a powerhouse among the cast and it is little wonder why he was chosen for the role. Also in prominence is the fact that Princeton, albeit with a few decent lines and some excellent music, has something of the prosaic about him despite being the protagonist, which can challenge an actor to make him interesting when compared to the milieu of wild characters surrounding him. Knispel had no trouble in this effort and never once bored me or delivered so much as one note without dynamism.
The audience should be more than grateful that he is matched with fellow student Maria Miller as monster-ingénue and love-interest Kate Monster, whose only fault in her performance is a powerful challenge to the talents of Stephanie D'Abruzzo (the original Broadway Kate, whose voice is now iconic for the character) as many of Miller's inflections, comedic beats, and her mastery of her puppet's physiology were nearly flawless. It must also be noted that Kate Monster's much lauded ballad "There's A Fine, Fine Line" has met its match with Maria's presentation, which imbued it with all the power and sincerity one could ask for. There is no doubt of her future in the professional circuit, should she want it.
Also worthy of mention in female talent, vocal tenacity, and fitness for their character was Quinn Vaira as the lascivious Lucy The Slut. Perfect casting is, in a word, an understatement -- though not to say that it is a typecast! Vaira's alluring figure, scintillatingly blonde hair and sultry voice were a compliment to the role, and she stood out easily as the one with the most control over the infinite variations of expression of which her puppet was capable. (A note of thanks would likely be necessary to Andy Meyers, who was co-director and puppet choreographer of the production.)
While other roles stand out in stellar or equal regard on account of excellent performances by well-cast actors (namely Erik Montague as Nikki and Hugh Bickley as Trekkie Monster), what has made this performance of Avenue Q truly enjoyable was the steal-the-show performances of its smallest on-stage faces. Christina Scruggs and Sean Kirkpatrick as the Bad Idea Bears were blessings to the energy of Act I, which somehow felt only slightly lethargic until their entrance (perhaps because of the general strangeness in timing that always occurs on an opening night when the actors suddenly need to adjust their performances to an audience's reactions). The excessively absurd nature of their characters and the commitment (inside show joke, there) they had to them was positively infectious -- whatever warming up the audience might have needed was well-delivered by them. This goes double for Scruggs, whose Mrs. Thistletwat was a damnably clever performance and whose enthusiasm for her parts in the show was unnervingly energetic. Scruggs and Kirkpatrick are clearly the kind of character actors for whom this show is written.
Scenic and Lighting Designers Shy Iverson and Mike Monsos (respectively) have also done the show a great service in their work. The atmosphere of Avenue Q retains with it all the griminess of Little Shop's Skid Row with the childish whimsy of Sesame Street, which the show is clearly meant to parody. Of particular cleverness was the utilization of the video projections onto a roof-top billboard, which was a clear and savvy improvement on the proscenium screens used in the original Broadway production (despite not being set up correctly during pre-show and displaying the control booth's computer cursor) Sound Design and sound in general deserve a nod as the work of Music Director Lizzie Hatfield filled a 500-seat auditorium with a 20-piece orchestra sound created from only five extraordinarily talented players.