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BWW Reviews: MJR Theatricals | Music Box Musicals' AVENUE Q is Hysterical Fun

In 2003, a certain green girl flew on Broadway for the first time. In the same year, a handful of plucky performers with some ostentatiously crass puppets opened a smaller show Off-Broadway. They transferred to Broadway months before the witches of Oz made their big splash and later surprised everyone when they grabbed the coveted Triple Crown at the 2004 Tony Awards. Taking home the Tony for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical, Avenue Q was truly defying gravity. More than 10 years later, the show is still running in New York City at Off-Broadway's New World Stages and in Houston Michael J. Ross's MJR Theatricals | Music Box Musicals' production is giddily showcasing why the musical has such pronounced staying power.

For those uninitiated to the splendor of Avenue Q, it tells the story of Princeton, a fresh-faced young graduate, who is wondering what he can do with his B.A. in English. He has moved to New York City, but really can't afford to live anywhere except the outer-outer-boroughs. Once settled on Avenue Q, he quickly discovers that he needs to take some time to find his purpose in life. Along the way he befriends his neighbors, a mix of humans and puppets, and Gary Coleman, his building's superintendent. The witty book by Jeff Whitty and clever score and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx hilariously tackle issues like racism, Internet pornography, dating, alcohol, and more.

Having only previously seen the show when it played the Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the first that really struck me in this production was Michael J. Ross' excellent direction. In the intimate setting of the Music Box Theater, he makes every element of the production work to the best of its ability. For example, his cast does such a good job manipulating the puppets, that it easy to overlook the puppeteers. Yet, each puppeteer is mesmerizing in performance too, fully emoting and manipulating their faces and bodies to emphasize what the characters on their arms are experiencing. Furthermore, every joke, even the ones that we've heard hundreds of times on the Original Broadway Cast Album, lands well and leaves the audience in stitches.

Music Direction, also by Michael J. Ross, is fantastic for this production. He has coached his cast to sing on pitch in characters voices, which I assume is no easy task. Anyone familiar with the Houston theatre scene will most likely recognize most of the faces on the stage, so prepare to be surprised and quite taken by how well this cast can manipulate and alter their voices, especially John Gremillion's spotless recreation of original Broadway cast member Rick Lyon's voice for Nicky. There was only one aspect of the musical direction that seemed odd to me, and that was when Allison Sumrall belted she dropped her Kate Monster character voice. Despite this, her belt is so lovely and dynamic that the shift in her voice doesn't detract from the production.

Choreography by Adam W. Delka playfully incorporates elements of Ken Roberson's original choreography (i.e. the head nods in "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist") while feeling wholly original. Each movement is light-hearted and filled with joy, purposefully delivering the Sesame Street and Muppet charm and charisma that audiences expect. The bright, sprightly steps and movements are affective comically and help the audience suspend disbelief and become immersed in the world of Avenue Q.

Even with the hard work of the creative team behind this production of Avenue Q, the show would be a dud if it weren't for the talented and versatile cast. According to the director's notes, none of cast members had any puppet experience before this production of Avenue Q. After seeing the show in performance, that fact simply seems unfathomable. Each actor and actress that handles a puppet has impeccable timing when manipulating the mouths to fit the spoken and sung syllables, they shimmy their arms inside the puppet bodies to give each character a distinctive and kinesthetic "walk," and they truly make the characters come to live. Those without puppets are animated and lively as well, imbuing their characters with all the requisite spunk of human personas working opposite of puppets. Across the two acts, there was not one bad performance. The most memorable would have to be Marco Camacho's peppy and spirited Princeton, John Gremillion's Nicky, Briana J. Resa's hysterically assertive Christmas Eve, Tamara Siler's Gary Coleman, and Eric Edward Schell and Cay Taylor's riotous Bad Idea Bears.

Now opening its second season, MJR Theatricals | Music Box Musicals is proving itself to be one of Houston's premiere destinations for intimate and entertaining musical theatre. Their first season was a decadent parade of hits, and with this production of Avenue Q, the company is showing that they are only interested in raising their own bar and giving audiences performances that consistently best the one that came before. For a night of uncontrollable laughter, a show with a lot of heart, and quality performances, Avenue Q is the ticket you seek.

AVENUE Q, produced by MJR Theatricals | Music Box Musicals, plays The Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt Street, Houston, 77098, now through November 23, 2013. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., select Thursdays at 8:00 p.m., and select Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Because of adult content, adult language, and full puppet nudity, Avenue Q is Rated R and intended for mature audiences only. For tickets and more information, please visit www.themusicboxtheater.com or call (713) 522-7722.


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