BWW Review: AVENUE Q at Mercury Theater Has Big Laughs and A Bigger Heart
The lovable and lewd puppets of AVENUE Q have returned to Mercury Theater in a remount of the company's successful 2014 production. I have a soft spot for this musical gem-which beat out WICKED in 2004 to take home the Best Musical Tony Award-and Mercury's production reminded me precisely why that appreciation runs so deep. With a book by Jeff Whitty and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (the latter of subsequent THE BOOK OF MORMON and FROZEN fame), AVENUE Q strikes a delectable balance between outrageously funny and unabashedly heartfelt.
AVENUE Q'S high concept is "Sesame Street for adults," as evidenced by such numbers as "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" and "It Sucks To Be Me." Yet as I watched Mercury Theater's production on Friday night, I was also struck by the fact that this show fully wears its heart on its fuzzy puppet sleeve. AVENUE Q's ragtag, diverse community of puppets, monsters, and humans coming together to face the challenges of NYC living has a hopeful sincerity to it that makes the show especially relevant now. Some of the show's material has certainly aged since 2003, particularly the number "The Internet Is for Porn" that pre-dates the ubiquity of smartphones. Yet AVENUE Q's genuine optimism about the ability of diverse individuals to come together and support one another feels so needed now.
That's not to say, however, that this AVENUE Q is short of the laughs it needs to succeed. On the contrary, director L. Walter Stearns's ensemble that brings together a mix of returning and new cast nail both the comedic and sweet moments in the show. In the leading roles of Princeton and Kate Monster, Jackson Evans and Leah Morrow capture an earnestness so pure that it will squeeze your heart. Evans portrays Princeton's optimism and naiveté with such genuine intent, drawing audiences to both him and the puppet character he carries onstage. Morrow easily essays Kate Monster's big heart and her character's longing for love and success in her career. She's also vocally so expressive and wonderful. As free-spirited Nicky and uptight Rod, AVENUE Q's send-up to that iconic Sesame Street duo Ernie and Bert, Dan Smeriglio and Christian Siebert play off each other beautifully. Audrey Billings wins the day as Japanese immigrant Christmas Eve, married to the rather directionless Brian (Matthew Miles). Billings not only has a command of her character's comedy, but also has a chance to show off her classical vocal training. Overall, the whole cast truly comes together to build a sense of community, and there's not a weak link vocally or acting-wise among them.
AVENUE Q's relatively modest and intentionally dilapidated set design from Alan Donahue lends itself well to the Mercury Theater's intimate venue. Of course, the puppet design is perhaps the most critical element for AVENUE Q. Russ Walko designed the puppets; they largely evoke those of the original Broadway production, with some unique changes. Notably, Rick Lyon-who designed the puppets for Broadway and performed in the OBC-also consulted as puppetry coach on this production. The actors nail the puppet work. AVENUE Q's signature staging has the actors visible and performing alongside their puppets, and that combination is particularly delightful here.
Whether you have seen AVENUE Q before and can mouth the lyrics to all the songs or if you have never experienced it, Mercury Theater's production is worth a visit. AVENUE Q will provide uproarious and NSFW laughs for days, but it also will touch your heart and provide a much-needed dose of theatrical sunshine.
AVENUE Q plays through December 30 at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Tickets are $35-$65. MercuryTheaterChicago.com
Photo by Brett A. Beiner