BWW Review: Nashville Rep's Outrageously Fun AVENUE Q Leaves Audiences Wanting More
Never before have audiences responded with such startling enthusiasm and thunderous applause to a Nashville Repertory Theatre opening night - at least in my memory and I've been reviewing shows at the Rep for 30 years now - than what I witnessed last night as Avenue Q kicked off the company's 2018-19 season in astonishingly irreverent style. Theater historians would have a hard time finding a production in which Nashville Rep audiences had a better time celebrating diversity and internet porn while watching two puppets have unbridled and unrestrained sex even if they lack some of the parts necessary to consummate the act.
It was, without doubt and without danger of fulsome exaggeration, one of the most gloriously and outrageously enjoyable experiences one could have in the dark surrounded by several hundred other theater fans celebrating one of the 21st century's most beloved, if totally different and completely off-the-chain, musical comedies found in the canon of the American theater. Directed by Lauren Shouse with musical direction by Jason Tucker, Avenue Q is the hopeful harbinger of a new Nashville Rep season that shows as much promise - or maybe more - of any season we can readily recollect (we can't wait to see Cheryl White and company in A Doll's House, Part 2). Get your tickets as quickly as possible to Avenue Q, which is likely to become, if it hasn't already, one of the most talked about shows in recent memory.
Conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who wrote the music and lyrics (the delightful book is by Jeff Whitty), Avenue Q made its Broadway premiere in 2003, winning the Tony Award in 2004 for best musical - claiming the top prize over Wicked, Caroline, or Change and The Boy From Oz. While it may be referred to as "a sort of Sesame Street for adults" (as a friend described it to me recently), it's so much more than that: Avenue Q is brilliantly conceived and sharply written, satirizing contemporary parenting precepts that lead children to believe they are all special and capable of doing anything their heart desires with little or no effort.
With a cast of vibrant characters who bring life on New York City's somewhat derelict and down-at-heels Avenue Q - found somewhere in the outer outer boroughs - into focus (the cast includes live actors and numerous puppets, manipulated by unconcealed "handlers"), immediately drawing audiences into the action with a blend of over-the-top comedy and outlandish situations that are closer to the truth than you might feel comfortable admitting in polite conversation. From the very first moments of the musical, during which the character of Princeton (played at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre by Bradley Gale, in a star-making turn that firmly establishes him as Nashville's very own Mr. Musical Theater) laments his lack of preparation for life in spite his recently acquired B.A. in English, the audience becomes thoroughly immersed in the sights and sounds of Avenue Q, both the street and the show, taken along for a thrilling two-and-a-half hours that will leave them wanting more and looking for the end of the queue for yet another ride on this particularly theatrical roller-coaster of an adventure.
Shouse directs the riotously funny and uproariously entertaining Avenue Q with imagination and wit (her deft updating of various pop culture references in the script land solidly among the audience who reward her efforts with deafening laughter and remarkable applause - not to mention, audible gasps), infusing the already terrific piece with more magical moments in which the audience becomes complicit in the story being told and the "acts" being performed onstage. Shouse keeps the action moving along at a veritable breakneck pace - sure, there are moments when you can catch your breath, but they are quickly followed by more hilarity and more scandalous escapades (jeez, your neighborhood theater critic sounds like a 1930s movie matron a la Margaret Dumont in some Marx Brothers vehicle - sorry!) to keep you on your toes and on the edge of your seat. Who knew shoving your fist up some guy's bum and making him talk for you could be so invigorating and so breathlessly life-changing? Get your minds out of the gutter - you know what I mean, don't you, gentle readers?
On his journey to adulthood and the search for self-realization, Princeton eventually finds a place to live on Avenue Q, where he finds himself surrounded by a cast of characters that includes Kate Monster, a lovelorn kindergarten teacher's assistant who hasn't had a date since Eric Trump was taken off the market; Brian, an aspiring Jewish comic, who shares the upstairs flat with his fiancée Christmas Eve, a Japanese-born therapist with a non-existent clientele; Rod, an uptight Republican investment banker who may or may not be a closeted HOMOSEXUAL (he does have a girlfriend who lives in Canada, for heaven's sake), and his supportive roommate Nicky (who looks like he's an émigré from Sesame Street); Trekkie Monster, a gravelly-voiced creature who spends his days feeding his habit with plenty of internet porn; and TV's Gary Coleman, who's the building's super, even while reveling in his former sitcom stardom and current notoriety for having sued his parents for squandering his king's ransom of a salary from Diff'rent Strokes.
In addition to Mr. Gale, who is so deliciously perfect as both Princeton and Rod, the uptight Republican, that I can barely contain my glee (the joyful kind, not the tired Ryan Murphy variety), Shouse has assembled a group of actors ideally suited to each of the roles. So ideal are they, that I cannot imagine anyone else inserting their hands and forearms up into the innards of a similar set of like-minded puppets, but there is at least one more iteration of Avenue Q still to come down the Nashville theater pipeline this season: Circle Players, the gauntlet has been tossed in your 70-year-old face!
As the wonderful Kate Monster and her equally estimable competition for Princeton's affection, Megan Murphy Chambers is so good you might assume the role was originally written just for her, and her performance of "A Fine, Fine Line" is one of those musical theater ballads that will have you alternating between emotions. It is lovely and refined (it is so well-suited to Murphy Chambers' voice) that you can lose yourself in her performance, only to be brought back to reality by the tears in your eyes as she so effortlessly breaks your heart. And when Kate Monster and Princeton finally go to bed for one particularly wild ride on Mr. Toad, the scene is rapturously funny and artfully profane...trust me, you won't soon forget the experience.
As the affable Brian, whose attempts at comedy leave something to be desired, Sawyer Wallace is terrific, always eager to go for the big laugh even at his own expense, and with a smart, confident performance to boot. Making her Nashville Rep debut as Christmas Eve, Natsuko Hirano is remarkably focused and funny, making the most of her ethnic roots to play the stereotypical role free from any restraint, thus ensuring her character is authentic and believable.
Another newcomer to the Nashville Rep stage (in fact, only Ms. Murphy Chambers has been seen in a principal role before Avenue Q), Melinda Paul - who this year alone has shown her amazing range in productions such as Eclipsed at Street Theater Company and Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood for Actors Bridge Ensemble and Wild Card Productions - delivers a performance as Gary Coleman that's so good she's likely to be invited to take part in a TV Land tribute to Diff'rent Strokes or in a VH1 Behind the Music (if only). Her on-target depiction of the former child star somehow seems both satirical (she is a woman, after all, playing a man) and refreshingly honorific.
What with this cavalcade of genuine talent and thoroughly committed portrayals from Gale, Murphy Chambers, Wallace, Hirano and Paul, one might presume they claim top acting honors among Shouse's absolutely superb ensemble, but those kudos might just as easily be claimed by Jonah M. Jackson and Sarah Aili, who play a variety of different characters with skill, leavened with ample amounts of charm and likability. Together, the two bring Trekkie Monster, Nicky and the feckless Bad Idea Bears to life, showing off their teamwork and allowing Jackson to demonstrate his amazing vocal capabilities. Watching Jackson so seamlessly blend into each character he's called upon to play, it reminds a wizened theater critic of the absolute joy one can feel watching a young actor develop into such an experienced and self-assured performer.
Tucker's confident musical direction succeeds admirably in providing the accompaniment to the singers onstage, earning even more fans for the Avenue Q score from among the rapt audiences in the Johnson Theatre. The cast perform Avenue Q against the backdrop of another remarkable Gary C. Hoff set design that would seem miraculous if we weren't accustomed to being bowled over by his herculean efforts. Darren E. Levin's lighting design is gorgeous and seamlessly integrated, directing the eyes of every audience member to where they need to focus and highlighting the goings-on as they happen onstage. June Kingsbury's costume design is laudable and Ned Singh's sound design is among the best we've encountered in any theatrical offering in Nashville.
Special attention should be paid to the efforts of Pete Carden, who works as consultant and coach to the actors who work so arduously to add "puppeteer" to their list of special talents. Carden's expertise and guidance ensures that Avenue Q succeeds on a multitude of theatrical levels that you simply must experience for yourself.
Avenue Q. Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty. Based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Directed by Lauren Shouse. Musical direction by Jason Tucker. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre, Rene D. Copeland, artistic director. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre. Through September 23. For further information, go to www.nashvillerep.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).