BWW Reviews: AVENUE Q at 4th Wall Theatre
I spent my Tony Awards weekend returning to the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q. Not the production that moved from Broadway to its Off-Broadway home at New World Stages, but one presented by 4th Wall Theatre in Bloomfield, New Jersey. What Artistic Director Kate Swan (Broadway actress and Regional Theatre director) has done with this production is worthy of a tour in and of itself and not just a two weekend run at the Westminster Arts Center at Bloomfield College. With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez (recently of Frozen) and Jeff Marx (recent writings for TV's Glee) and book by Jeff Whitty (Bring it On: The Musical), the show pays great homage to children's shows such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Who among us didn't grow up getting our lessons from the puppets on those shows? Avenue Q may be one with an adult warning of explicit language and humor, but the heart of the show is about life lessons we all deal with: finding our purpose, racism, and dreaming big. No matter your age, you listen to these characters with their issues and end up looking inward at your own life.
When 4th Wall announced they were ending their season with this comic gem of a show, actors in New Jersey and New York City brushed off their puppet skills to head to auditions and what an amazing lot of performers Ms. Swan got for this production. The eleven people working so hard as actors, singers, puppeteers handle each moment with an ease that makes one believe this show has been running for months and not just opened on June 6th. Each of them bring such personality to their characters (and amazing mimic facial expressions shared by their puppet counterparts). To make an audience watch the puppet on your arm and not the actor wearing black attached to it is a feat into itself and this cast has mastered that beautifully.
When Princeton (Michael Campbell) arrives on Avenue Q looking for a place to live (and a way to utilize his college degree), he meets an entire neighborhood of fantastic characters. Campbell and Tara Haight as Kate Monster have wonderful chemistry on stage - and I'm not simply talking about the actors...I mean the way they work their puppet magic so that we fall instantly for our hero and heroine. Like all of their puppet playing co-stars, they have each taken on unique character voices that bring warmth and life to an inanimate object. The same can be said of the roommates Nicky and Rod (Gonzalo Valencia and Johnny Vento) where one may be gay or maybe not. The 'couple' make for interesting story lines and both actors have great comic timing. Like those PBS shows we grew up on, there are human characters that interact with the puppets, always looking them directly in the eye to make audiences believe they are living and breathing things. Engaged couple Brian and Christmas Eve (Danny Egan and Asami Tsuzuki) are a lovable pair where one wants to be a comedian and his wife-to-be rides him to find a real job.
The man acting as the super over the entire neighborhood? That's TV's Gary Coleman played by the fabulous Lynette Sheard (with pipes on her that shake the rafters). And what neighborhood isn't complete without a grouch....er...Trekkie Monster, brought to life by the entertainingly raunchy Tom Schopper. But like all good shows, there must be something to upset the applecart of our young lovers and Ave Q supplies that with Lucy T. Slut played by Madeline Fansler who is so far removed from her previous 4th Wall production as Dot in Sunday in the Park with George that I marveled it was the same woman. What a talent! Rounding out the cast are Kate Hoover and Jacob Haury which makes the audience long for them to return with their Bad Idea Bears each time they appear. They add to the overall joy we feel watching this ensemble piece, because in the end - that's what it is. An ensemble, a neighborhood - all relying on each other to convey this charming theatrical piece.
Music director Markus Hauck has done an amazing job with singers using character voices (as well as the pit he has assembled) and the creative team with set design, lights, sound, projections, costumes, producers and stage manager all deserve a huge kudos on this show. I've seen numerous productions by this company and I can say that every single element in this show matched the same professional quality across the board. (And a shout out to the numerous people I'm sure were backstage working this show as well.)
If you are looking for a fun evening that will make you laugh until your sides ache and then can turn on a dime and pull at your heart strings, leave the kids at home and drive yourself to Bloomfield to see what this neighborhood has to offer...at least for now. Runs Friday & Saturday June 6, 7, 13, 14 at 8 pm. Sunday June 8 & 15 at 3pm. Westminster Arts Center, 449 Franklin Street, Bloomfield NJ. To reserve tickets, call 973-566-9255 (WALL). Tickets can be purchased online at: www.4thwalltheatre.org
Photos by: Howard Fischer