BWW Review: AVENUE Q in Top Form at Palm Canyon Theatre
Palm Canyon Theatre's production of AVENUE Q is so enjoyable that when I got home, I looked at my calendar to see if I could go again during its three-week run. AVENUE Q is the funniest, warmest, most talented musical production I have seen in a very long time. I urge you to run, not walk, to the box office to make sure you get tickets!
Most of us were raised watching a group of televised puppets and humans that lived on a certain street in a big city. In short sketches, often with songs, they would explore friendships, problem solving, and making the most of their lives. AVENUE Q catches up with a very similar group of characters as they enter their 20's and 30's. The humans are still an African American, an Asian American, and, well, a Vanilla American. The puppets, which look very much like Jim Henson's creations, are mostly humanesque millennials, though a couple of them are monsters (covered in fur rather than flesh, but not grotesque). Their issues still include problem solving and getting along with each other, but have added getting a job, sexual exploration, and finding life's purpose.
Oh, and a word of warning: the language is occasionally a bit salty, and there is full puppet nudity and graphic sex onstage. Well, as graphic as it can be with puppets that only extend to the middle of their chests.
The puppeteers all wear black and carry their puppet characters with one hand inside the head, and the other operating one or both hands. When two puppeteers are required to operate the two hands, the second keeps one arm wrapped around the waist of the other puppeteer and uses his free hand to operate the other hand of the puppet. You can fully see the puppeteers, including watching their mouths move as they speak or sing, but the puppets are brighter and larger, so we generally watch their faces.
Director Luke Rainey has assembled a flawless company of 11 performers, led by PCT veteran Nicholas Sloan doing double duty playing both Rod (think Sesame's Bert) and Princeton, a recent college grad who has worked himself all the way down the alphabet to Avenue Q to find an affordable apartment. Sloan is regularly the PCT's go-to hunk, but here he displays an entire new toolkit as he voices two distinct, adorable puppet characters. One of them, Rod, is an extremely high-strung roomie who everyone thinks is gay. His other character is Princeton, the new tenant on the street, who develops a relationship with Kate Monster, enjoyably voiced and operated by Jamie Leigh Walker (who happens to actually be Sloan's wife). Their relationship leads to a highly graphic sex-charged date one night. There might be some audience members upset by this, but I found myself rolling with laughter as they explored just about every angle possible for two nude characters to come at each other.
Rod's straight roommate, Nicky, is played by Anthony Nannini, assisted by Aidan Bosworth operating Nicky's right hand. One delight of the show is watching the two interacting hands of a puppet being operated by two different people. Nannini keeps himself in check as the deep voiced Nicky, letting himself be the straight man (in a variety of ways!) in his interactions with the over-the-top Rod.
Trekkie Monster, a big, hairy galumph voiced and operated by Alden Dickey owns the stage with his number, "The Internet is for Porn." Like all of the puppeteers, he uses a character voice - in this case, a deep resonant one with a lot of gravel in it - but when he sings in character, we are still aware that we are listening to a topnotch baritone!
Jana Giboney is Lucy The Slut, a night club singer who toys with Princeton as a well-hung plaything. She only has a couple of scenes, but it's hard to look anywhere else onstage while she's there. Her big number, "Special," stopped the show on opening night with the applause it garnered.
Brenna Williams, Chalise Kunz, and Aidan Bosworth are utility puppeteers, but each has their own characters such as the two Bad Idea Bears who figuratively sit on the shoulders of characters and coax them to do bad things, or a cranky school teacher with a name too salacious to mention here.
The three human characters are every bit as over-the-top as the puppets. The super of all the buildings on the block is Gary Coleman - yes, that Gary Coleman - as played by female Ceisley Jefferson. The plot tells us that the child actor has been unable to find work since his series finished, and he has taken on this post much like actor Geoffrey Owen of the Cosby Show who was shamed earlier this year for working at Trader Joe's. In fact, many observations in this show, which was selected as Best Musical when it opened in 2003, are absolutely topical today. Rainey has added a few relevant references to current politicians, and they are greeted with howls. Jovie Olivas as Christmas Eve and M. Carrick O'Dowd as Brian each display wonderful singing voices, and have created well rounded characters which are as outrageous as the puppets that surround them.
Director Rainey has ensured that there is never a slow moment, and the movement - including his choreography - keeps our eyes glued to the stage. I think the greatest achievement of the show is the uniformity of acting and singing skills of all 11 performers. It's rare to see a show where at least one of the actors doesn't lag a bit behind the others, but there is no weak link in this cast. And the highest accolade you can give a director is that his work is invisible. It's seems like we're just watching a group of 11 likeable young actors who encounter each other smoothly, and keep us laughing, or at least smiling, for two hours (including intermission).
Resident Musical Director Steven Smith is in top form as he accompanies the show from a piano. The vocal harmonies are great, and seem effortless, and as noted, the puppet character voices all display excellent singing skills. Smith is joined in the pit by Larry Holloway on bass, and David Bronson on drums, who gets several individual moments outside of the songs including Lucy The Slut's stripper walk.
J. W. Layne's set and lighting serve the production well. The action takes place in front of a tenement building where numerous doors, windows, fire escape, and even roof get used frequently. The building could have used a pop of color, but it seems like the designer wanted to nail the fact that this is about as far down the alphabet as a street can go, and hence the buildings are painfully drab.
AVENUE Q only plays through November 18, so I strongly recommend that you put it on your calendar. It will be followed by crowd and family favorite HAIRSPRAY from November 30 - December 16. Tickets and more information are available at www.palmcanyontheatre.org.
Photos by Paul Hayashi.