BWW Review: A Fun Stageworks Journey to AVENUE Q
AVENUE Q ranks up there with Next to Normal, The Producers, The Book of Mormon, Spring Awakening, Fun Home, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen as one of the finest musicals of the 21st Century. It is beloved by an entire generation of theatergoers and deals in a groundbreaking way with the struggles of modern times. Funny and serious, cynical and heartwarming, no wonder its latest run, at Stageworks, is pretty much sold out (there are only a couple of available performances left, so get your tickets now). This is one mega-popular show.
The Stageworks production of AVENUE Q does this quasi-coming-of-age New York City parable justice with strong vocals and lots of verve. That said, if you have seen AVENUE Q before, then this production offers nothing new, nothing revelatory. It's a good time, obviously well performed, but nothing that raises the bar. It's still timely, especially with the addition of a couple of Trump jokes, and it never ceases being fun with universal, adult meanings. But don't expect something transformative.
For those who have never journeyed down AVENUE Q (witty words and music by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty), it's a lot like Sesame Street on crack, a PBS children's show in Rent Land, but it's more than that. It's like a learner's guide to living in the 21st Century. It even comes complete with colorful puppets to get its point across. And yes, this production contains the single greatest puppet sex scene I have ever witnessed. (I can't believe I just wrote that previous sentence.) Then again, the only other nakedly intimate puppet scene I've seen was in that trying-too-hard-to-be-funny film by the South Park/Book of Mormon boys, Team America: World Police. This one beats it hands down.
The puppets are so well made that it's a shame the makers of the puppets, or the company that they were rented from, are not mentioned in the program.
The cast skews younger in this production and includes some of the most talented local performers you'll have the pleasure to find. Ricky Cona, as both Princeton and Rod, may be the most affable performer in the Bay Area. He could murder a family of four and get away with it because he's so damned likable. And that likability never ebbs during the performance of AVENUE Q.
Julia Rifinio is splendid as Kate Monster. In 2011, I had the pleasure of seeing a group of teens perform Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. at Stage West in Spring Hill. Even though she was so young then, Ms. Rifino was spectacular as Millie, especially that pure as water singing voice. And her voice here, all these years later, is even better, filled with personality. It's a joy to listen to. Her Lucy The Slut is also a winner.
Cody Carlson makes the most of his parts, Nicky and the internet porn watching addict, Treckie Bear. You can feel the puppets are extensions of Carlson's ADHD persona. I just saw him as a venom-spewing Judas in a version of Jesus Christ Superstar at the New Tampa Players, and seeing him wielding these puppets in AVENUE Q, it begs the question: Is there anything he can't do?
Ryan Sturm and Ashley Lord make the most out of the cool Bad Idea Bears. Derek Baxter (as Brian), Caitlin Greene (as Christmas Eve) and Jade Turner (as Gary Coleman...yes, that Gary Coleman) are quite wonderful in the non-puppeteer parts of the show.
Director Paul Finocchiaro has guided a marvelous cast and keeps the show moving. It drags near the end of Act 1, but it's overall solid work. And the choreography works well; I especially enjoyed the singing boxes (complete with moveable mouths). And little moments work wonders, like the literal light going on over a puppet's head when it has an idea.
Eric W. Haak's Alphabet City set is quite serviceable. Megan Byrne's lighting is efficient and never intrusive, and Karla Hartley's often cute videos add just the right touch to the show.
Thomas D. Guthrie's music direction is spot on, with his and William Bryant's work on the keyboards, Jim Rungo doing percussion, and Stephen Padgett on reeds. It's a tight, tidy group of musicians who keep the proceedings moving along. The songs are what make AVENUE Q so memorable, with titles like "It Sucks to Be Me," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" (the showstopper of the musical) and "Schadenfreude." It's too bad that Stageworks did not provide a song list in their program; I know they may want audiences to be surprised by the songs as they are being performed, but most people already know the show, and a song list always helps.
AVENUE Q has been heralded as a masterpiece by many. And it is quite clever, but when I left the theatre after the show, I felt I hadn't seen a masterpiece--not the masterpiece that it's supposed to be. I had experienced a very smart, extremely well-directed show, but not a world-changing one. Still, it's quite entertaining and worth its popularity with its catchy, can't-get-em-out-of-your-head songs.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to popular demand and sold out shows, Stageworks has added another performance of AVENUE Q. Tickets are now available for Monday, May 15th at 7:00pm. For more information: https://stageworkstheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/...