BWW Review: AVENUE Q at Theatre Harrisburg
Most of you are probably quite familiar with Sesame Street, but have you been to the Avenue? Avenue Q, that is! This musical comedy by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx opened in 2003 Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre before moving to Broadway's John Golden Theatre where, in 2004, it won several Tony Awards including Best Musical. It has enjoyed tremendous success on Broadway, Las Vegas, the West End, and through various touring and international productions and has become a fun challenge for community theatres around the country.
While the show may not be to everyone's taste (and is definitely not meant for audience members under a certain age), Avenue Q takes a comedic but very blunt look at everyday issues we face as we struggle with the task of adulting in the world. For those not familiar with Avenue Q, the show uses both flesh-and-blood actors as well as puppets to follow the lives of those moving into or living in an apartment complex on Avenue Q. The puppets are handled by unconcealed puppeteers who are tasked with finding a way to make their own facial expressions, movements, and voices match those of their puppet in such a way that the puppeteer and puppet are really an extension of one another-not an easy task, but one that, when done well, elevates the performance to the level of theatre magic. The residents of Avenue Q recently moved into the Whitaker Center's Sunoco Performance Theatre with the cast and crew from Theatre Harrisburg.
The set is fun, gorgeous, and delightfully off-kilter, with bright and bold colors and doors turned the wrong way. There is so much to look at, it's almost hard to take it all in, which is just how I remember feeling the first time I moved into a place that wasn't "home", and is the perfect feeling to give the audience as they see Princeton, fresh out of college, looking for his first apartment. Before I move on from the set, I should also mention their use of a screen as part of the set, where the audience see not only videos reminiscent of an adult version of Sesame Street but also scenes from the inside of the various apartments in the building.
There are so many great things to say about this performance of Avenue Q. First of all, the entire cast has strong voices that maintain beautiful harmonies. While I had difficulty hearing the character Christmas Eve at times (mostly in the larger group numbers) because of the volume of the instrumental music, for the most part the cast really held their own and could be heard and understood (not an easy task when most of them are also working their puppets at the same time).
As mentioned above, the show does use more than just puppets-there are "real" people living on Avenue Q as well-Brian, Christmas Eve, and Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, of Different Strokes fame). Randy Stamm, takes on the role of Brian, fiancé to Christmas Eve and resident comedian. Stamm's great comedic timing is perfect for this role, particularly in the scene when Brian discovers that Christmas Eve has sent out wedding invitations without his knowledge. Add to his comedy brilliance a wonderful voice and ability to interact with the other characters, both human and puppet a like, in a realistic way, and Stamm really brings Brian to life.
Playing opposite Stamm is James Hwang in the role of Christmas Eve, a failing therapist from Japan. Hwang and Stamm interact well with one another on stage, highlighting and elevating one another's comedic performances. But, one of Hwang's best scenes in the production is with Christmas Eve and Kate Monster in Act 2 when Christmas Eve gives Kate some advice about love and relationships through the song "The More You Ruv Someone".
Gary Coleman, the other flesh and blood character, is portrayed by Kaila MacGinnes. MacGinnes delivers the lines that refer to Gary Coleman's actual life with just the right amount of dark humor and sarcasm. MacGinnes is able to combine the ability to portray Gary Coleman as both a character with which audiences are familiar and as a down-on-his-luck building superintendent with a fantastic voice that really shines in "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want" and "Schadenfreude".
The puppeteer actors not only have to be able to work their puppets, but they also have the challenge of playing different puppets at different times throughout the show, sometimes even providing the voice for a puppet they aren't operating. Tim Servinsky, Lisa Herzing, Tony Barber, and Becky Mease manage to make this incredibly difficult task look easy.
Tony Barber and Becky Mease work together as a team throughout most of the show, as the Bad Idea Bears and as the two hands of Nicky (though you'll also see Mease as Mrs. Thistletwat and Barber as Trekkie Monster, among other characters). Their teamwork is flawless, helping the audience to really focus on the puppet. These actors also take the reins in operating some of the other puppets when the entire cast is on stage, and it is incredible how they can act the part without speaking the lines, as the lines are being delivered by the puppet's normal puppeteer (if that sounds confusing, just go see the show, and you'll see what I mean).
The first thing audiences will notice about Tim Servinsky is his singing voice-it is strong, clear, and beautiful, and he changes his tone seemingly effortlessly based on whether he is voicing Princeton or Rod. Lisa Herzing, portraying primarily Kate Monster and Lucy, is well-matched to Servinsky. As Kate she is sweet and innocent, and her voice is bright and melodic, while as Lucy she is sultry with a deeper husky tone to her voice. Both of these actors do a remarkable job at portraying the thoughts and feelings of the character through not only the puppet itself but also through their own facial expressions, body language, and posture so that within the first few moments of the show it really seems like the puppet and the person are one character. It's exactly what is needed to make the magic of Avenue Q work, and these actors, along with Mease and Barber, do a fantastic job.
In the words of Theatre Harrisburg's Executive Director, Stosh Snyder, "Sesame Street teaches us lessons, as children, about growing up. Avenue Q teaches us lesson, as adults, about being grown up." You do not want to miss this magical production of Avenue Q by Theatre Harrisburg. Get your tickets now through May 12 at the door, online at www.theatreharrisburg.com, or by calling 717-214-ARTS.