BWW Review: Uncomfortably Hilarious AVENUE Q Opens at Amelia Community Theater
"What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" is the strikingly articulate song that follows the opening number of AVENUE Q, which opened last night at Amelia Community Theatre. I uncomfortably shifted in my seat, as my B.A. is...also in English (insert face-plant emoji). AVENUE Q, winner of three Tony Awards (including Best Musical), is a blunt, provocative, and at times hilarious, coming-of-age tale of how much it sucks to grow up and be an adult, told through the lens of jaded and satirical puppets and humans, who live in what is described as an "Outer-outer borough of New York City). Basically, it's X-rated Sesame Street. Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with book by Jeff Whitty, this musical has received favorable acclaim nationally and internationally alike.
AVENUE Q has lessons to teach. You will be hilariously uncomfortable, and at times, offended. Don't misread the dexterous attacks on how our society processes and addresses race issues, sex, pornography, gender, and suicide, to name a few. If misinterpreted, these jabs may seem offensive, unsensitive, and triggering. Honestly, some of them are offensive, unsensitive, and triggering, but at the fault of the dated writing, not the direction or execution by the actors.
One of the problems with this script is its lack of current relevance. Many of the taboo topics addressed were big ticket items 15 years ago, and our society was just fleshing out how executing those discussions would look. Avenue Q should be commended for its strong social stances in musical theatre's history, and director Lee Hamby should be praised for his effort of making the show relevant: our current political emergency is highlighted, as well as Jacksonville-related jokes. For its outdated material, including a grown-up Gary Coleman as lead character, the humorous attempts in this script are either still incredibly poignant or borderline offensive, considering our growth as a reconciling society. That said, this production is a fine pursuit of provoking conversation: the weakness of the script and plot are subsidized by powerful vocals, a perfect set, and plenty of laughs.
Julie Harrington exquisitely voices Kate Monster, the classy kindergarten teaching assistant on Avenue Q, who dreams of running a Monster Specialty School. Harrington's bubbly tone and strong intonation results in a perfect puppet voice. At times she appears to stray from her puppet, but that is 100% forgivable, as it seems directly related to her own connection to the character. Jonathan Leonard, who plays the lead role of Princeton (also a puppet), will shock you with pitch perfection and emotional reliability. He carries the show through his leadership and demeanor on stage, which translates well through his puppet's movement and posture. Other notable standouts: Gary Baker's character, Nicky (who is eerily, and intentionally, reminiscent of Sesame Street's Ernie), displays divine command of his puppet. Baker is the total package here: a great voice, subtle movement, and perfect deadpan, in what appears to be the most solid mix of puppeteer and actor on stage. Adina Pavlesich, a classically trained vocalist, truly switches gears in this production. Leaving behind the poise and etiquette of opera and art song, Pavlesich is a sexy, raunchy, completely committed character. Her puppet, Lucy The Slut, is an extension of her puppeteer's complete understanding of the harmony between letting the puppet tell the story while remaining completely engaged on stage. Additionally, Jocelyn Geronimo, who plays the human character Christmas Eve, is downright spectacular. A delightful voice, commanding presence, and total embodiment of her role won me completely. She's hilarious. The cast is rounded out well by Sade Crosby, Toni D'Amico, Sebastian Gagliardi, Jennifer O'Brien, Juan Luis Ocharan, David Evans Scott, and Craig Wickless (who, it should be mentioned, has an absolutely delicious voice). Musical direction by Ben Beck (who doubles as keyboard player in the orchestra) produces some solid vocals and harmonies.
The well-planned and even better executed set is designed by Arthur and Diana Herman, along with director Lee Hamby. A good set displays a solid understanding of the writer's intent. A great set, like this one, shows an artistic team's commitment to executing that intent. It feels like dirty Sesame Street, which is exactly what it should be. Also outstanding is Katie McCloskey's puppet training. The cast's connection to their furry friends is consistent, giving evidence to the time put into effective coaching. The product of a strong artistic team and a cast of engaging, talented actors is an opportunity to disconnect from reality, and relearn what we all learned on children's television programs growing up, albeit through the lens of R-rated content. It should be noted, if it has not been assumed, that this production is not appropriate for children.
AVENUE Q runs through August 26th, and tickets are available here.