BWW Review: Hilarious Puppets Take over Ocean State Theatre in AVENUE Q

BWW Review: Hilarious Puppets Take over Ocean State Theatre in AVENUE Q

There are certainly many strange and unusual musicals appearing regularly on stages in New York City and across the country. Avenue Q does not shy away from being something different and unique. Rather, it proudly owns every bit of its wonderful uniqueness and accompanying hilarity. From songs about internet porn to full-frontal puppet nudity, this is a musical that constantly surprises, bringing undeniable laughs along the way. And it's hard to imagine that any theater could create as perfect a production of Avenue Q as the one currently running at Ocean State Theatre Company.

With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Witty, Avenue Q is Sesame Street for grownups, in a way. The titular street is somewhere in the outer fringes of New York City, and is populated by a mix of humans (both real humans and puppet humans) and monsters (who are all puppets). One day, a young, fresh-out-of-college puppet human named Princeton arrives on the scene, ready to find a place to live and start his new life. He soon meets his motley crew of neighbors, including monsters Kate and Trekkie, puppet humans and roommates Rod and Nikky, and actual humans Brian, Christmas Eve and Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman). They all become friends, and sometimes more than friends, while struggling to survive the ups and downs, confusions and complexities of life, love and the pursuit of their purpose.

It's actually even more simple and straightforward than that may make it sound. Witty keeps the book very basic and simple, but in a good way. Kind of like the characters on Sesame Street would, if they were teaching you about sex, racism, porn, homosexuality and love. Everything that happens is very universal and very human, even when it's happening between puppets. It's also very genuine, earnest and heartfelt, and written so that anyone at any age would understand it, although the subject matter is definitely for adults and mature audiences.

The same things are true of the fantastic songs, which alternate between emotional and heartfelt or laugh-out-loud hilarious. Lopez and Marx create a number of memorable, toe-tapping and unforgettable songs, especially some of the funniest tunes, like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is for Porn." Some of them manage to be funny, touching and instantly relatable at the same time ("I Wish I Could Go Back to College") and others are more lovely power ballad than they are satirical humor-by-way-of song ("There's a Fine, Fine Line").

While a veteran of OSTC in other roles, Jason Parrish directs here for the first time and acquits himself nicely. The production's pace never flags and nothing ever feels boring or out of place. Parrish manages to make sure that all of the laugh lines (and there are many) hit perfectly while also handling the touching moments with equal care and attention. Other than too many moments where puppets and/or actors are facing upstage, Parrish takes excellent care of the puppet/actor relationships, pulling off the feat of making this strange world really work and make sense in its context. The actors doing the puppeteering are so perfectly animated and alive, their actions, behavior and expressions mirror those they create in their puppets, making it all seem even more real. It takes no time at all for the audience to relax into this perfectly realized world that Parrish has envisioned and just enjoy what he and his cast manage to create.

Speaking of that cast, every one of them is perfect. Extra kudos must go to Puppet Captain Elise Arsenault. The puppetry in this production is so good, so finely tuned and fantastically realized, Arsenault deserves whatever credit is due to her for making that happen. That's on top of the credit she should get for her excellent performance as a member of the ensemble, playing the roles of Mrs. T and one of the Bad Idea Bears (which is just as funny as you hope it will be), as well as manipulating some other puppets while other actors provide the voices. The radiant Arsenault is often hilarious without ever saying a word.

If you do not yet know the name Tommy Labanaris, you will after seeing this production. And truthfully, you should already be aware of Labanaris, who has stolen many a scene on the OSTC stage over the past few years, in a number of fabulous performances. He inspires a whole new level of amazement here, with his dual roles as two of the puppet humans, Princeton and Rod. Watching him switch back and forth between puppets will leave you almost as breathless as he must be, though he doesn't show it as he never misses a beat or an opportunity to make the audience laugh out loud. It is amazing to watch what is possibly the best comic performance you will see this year.

Equally talented and hilarious is Rochelle Weinrauch as the puppets Kate Monster and Lucy. While some of her puppeteering is not up to the level of her castmates, her wonderful acting and fantastic singing more than make up for it. She gives Kate Monster an impressively real and human life and then switches to Lucy and creates an equally entertaining character who is completely opposite in personality and tone. Like Labanaris, Weinrauch is able to nimbly switch back and forth between the two and her chemistry with Labanaris actually rubs off on the puppets, in a way. The fact that these two actors (who are as adorable together as their puppets are) work as a team so perfectly makes the interaction of their puppets even better.

That is really true of the entire ensemble, that they work together perfectly. The aforementioned Arsenault spends much of her time on stage working very closely with Jeff Blanchette, with whom she shares a number of puppets. Whether he's working a puppet alongside Arsenault or on his own, Blanchette is always hilarious and fantastic to watch. While the other actors don't have puppets to manipulate, they are no less skilled and talented. Jenna Lea Scott steals the show a number of times as Christmas Eve and Lovely Hoffman does the same as Gary Coleman. More of Scott's funny moments are speaking, rather than singing, but she nails them all, and Hoffman gets a number of moments to demonstrate her talent for comedy and her great singing voice at the same time. The final main character, Brian, is played by Greg LoBuono, who is very funny and has a great rapport with everyone else in the ensemble.

All of the production's technical aspects are wonderfully realized, from the colorful set to the hilarious video projections. It can't be overstated that the integration and use of the puppets in this production is really impressive and well worth the price of admission. It makes a show that always has hilarious songs and hilariously shocking moments even better. And while those shocking moments make it for mature audiences only, adults should not miss what is the funniest show you will see all summer.

*Avenue Q contains adult language, situations and humor.

Avenue Q runs through August 21st, with performances on Tuesday (except Aug. 9), Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with matinées at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Special matinées are also scheduled for Aug. 11 and Aug. 20 at 2 p.m. The theatre is located at 1245 Jefferson Blvd.,Warwick. Tickets are $39-$59 for all performances. "Rush" tickets are available for $30 on a limited basis one hour prior to performance. Tickets are available at the box office Monday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and from noon to curtain time on performance days. Tickets are also available online at OceanStateTheatre.org and by telephone at 401-921-6800.

Photo: Rochelle Weinrauch with Kate Monster. Photo by Mark Turek.

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From This Author Robert Barossi

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