BWW Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre's Marvelous AVENUE Q Thankfully Still Has the Power to Offend
In 1969, my Aunt Betty was nearing 70, and she and her elderly friend decided to go to "a good old fashioned western." Unfortunately, that "old fashioned western" turned out to be Midnight Cowboy, which was not only not a western but became the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. She wanted the next incarnation of Stagecoach, but this was something else--a male hustler selling himself to women in New York City. My aunt's friend was losing her eyesight, so she had to have the action of the movie described to her orally. Once my aunt realized that the smutty world of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo was not the same as the Western world of John Wayne and Walter Brennan that she was craving, she and her friend immediately bolted for the door, fleeing in terror. But the movie theater manager was there, standing in the doorway, cash in hand. "I've been waiting for you," he said with a sly smile as he handed them their refund.
I think of this story about my aunt after witnessing the horrified reactions of some of the older people in the audience of Eight O'Clock Theatre's terrific production of AVENUE Q. The show is one of the funniest, most incisive works of the past twenty years, where Muppet-like puppets merge with actual people; it's like Sesame Street meets Rent, with more than a dash of Book of Mormon humor thrown in for good measure (though AVENUE Q predates Book of Mormon by many years). But this group of mostly elderly women, located in the center of the audience, was not amused.
The ladies sat there, arms crossed, as puppets Rod and Nicky (sort of a warped, quirky Bert and Ernie) sang "If You Were Gay." They looked stern, nary a smile but certainly judgmental, as Trekkie Monster (sort of a perverted Cookie Monster) crooned, "The Internet is for Porn." And they appeared stone-faced, a geriatric Mount Rushmore, as they witnessed one of the funniest sex scenes in theatre history, where puppets Princeton and Kate Monster perform every numeric sexual position imaginable. These ladies were having none of it. They obviously wanted their theatre pure--the go-get-em hokum of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for instance, or the feel-good but nauseous Song of Norway. These prudish elders were not up to a show with songs like "It Sucks to Be Me" and "I Am Not Wearing Underwear Today."
When intermission came, the ladies were gone. They fled the theatre, a look of exasperated horror like Aunt Pitypat from Gone with the Wind, a look probably not unlike the look my own aunt gave 50 years ago after her run-in with Midnight Cowboy.
But their reactions--like Miss Daisy at a 21 Savage concert--proved to me one very important point: AVENUE Q still has bite. I saw the show a few years ago and wondered if it was no longer as relevant as when it was first performed. The audience there, much younger, appreciated the show, but the jokes seemed more about yesterday than today; I thought it had become a period piece, a snapshot of the post-9/11, pre-iPhone aughts--like Hair in the 1960's or Rent in the 1990's. I thought it was no longer the new upstart in town, the fresh face that had upset Wicked at the Tony Awards in 2004. I mean, come on, there's a dated song about mix tapes in it.
But AVENUE Q, bless its heart, still holds the power to offend, and that's a good thing. Some may think that people fleeing a show at intermission is a negative sign, but I look at it as a badge of honor here. They left not due to the quality of the work (exemplary), but because the content of its characters offended them so. But they were in the minority, wanting fluff but nothing that makes them really think or feel. The majority of the audience rightfully loved this show, almost screaming with laughter throughout. The songs (music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) are certainly funny, and the show (book by Jeff Whitty) has so much heart. But it's also ballsy as hell, and that's why it still matters.
It helps that the cast at Eight O'Clock Theatre is simply superb.
Cody Carlson as both Princeton and Rod has outdone himself here. He's always been talented and a can't-help-but-watch presence onstage, even in early productions at the Richey Suncoast Theatre so many years ago. But here, he's showing a depth of character, an ownership of the stage and a rare versatility. He's the driving force of this production, and he balances that out with puppeteering that's outlandishly good. And his singing voice has never sounded better, hitting notes with a confidence that will launch him wherever he wants to land.
Lauren Butterfield as Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut is a new face to the area, and boy, are we glad she's here! Her vocals rocked the house, and she really was able to differentiate the characters so handily. Steven Fox as puppets Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bear and Newcomer is also sensational and shows off some powerful pipes. I remember him in EOT's West Side Story years back, and I wasn't thrilled with his Riff (he just didn't seem tough enough for a gang leader). But he's certainly perfect here, and I was wonderfully impressed by his performance.
Kara Sotakoun, another newcomer, is splendid as the Asian-American "real" person, Christmas Eve. Her significant other, Brian, is played by James Grenelle, who's usually seen behind the scenes these days as director and choreographer. It's so great to see him onstage, full of verve, so much fun to watch, cartoonish yet real, like Patrick from Spongebob suddenly sprung to real life. Amy Dobbert is another wonderful addition as puppets Mrs. T and a variety of side characters. And Latoya McCormick is sensational as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), the super of the run-down building on Avenue Q. McCormick is great throughout, but she's never better than when she performed the standout "Schadenfreude" ("happiness at the misfortune of others"). What a voice, and what personality onstage, always bubbling with energy and life!
Director and choreographer Derek Baxter has expertly and lovingly guided this fabulous production. It's fast-paced, marvelously alive, but with a buttload of heart. The humor is amped up, and the director doesn't hide any of the racy material. He makes the brave decision to go All In or don't go at all; he's All In with AVENUE Q, and the audience is rewarded with one hell of a show. You would be shocked that it's a "mere" community theatre putting this on; this is one professional-looking production.
Dalton Hamilton's set is awe-inspiring. The buildings looks so real, but there's something slightly off about them, like we're trapped in some kind of Joe Dante dream. Clotheslines and dented garbage cans frame the building, and the sky changes colors behind the façade. Hamilton, who designed the lighting as well, illuminates the show just right, to get the fullest effect.
The videos, designed by Zach Rosing and Ben Phillipe, are shown on two TV sets and perfectly blend in with the production. The program mentions puppet consultant Ashley Ryan Lord, but it doesn't let us know what company these puppets--the stars of the show--were rented from.
Music director William Coleman has some great singers on his stage, and he utilizes them to the fullest with some incredible harmonies. The orchestra is strong: William Coleman conducting and on piano; Vincent M. Titara on keyboard; Brooke Stuart on drums; Dan Kolosky on bass; Dan Mockensturm on guitar and banjo; and Tony Fuoco on reeds. I worried that they may occasionally overpower the singers, but the vocals and the music balanced out fine.
If you like shows that are on the edge, that tell it like it is, that don't mince words but that will certainly make you laugh, then head on over to EOT's AVENUE Q. You'll get jokes about Scientology and even a Donald Trump reference that garnered some applause. But you'll also get the truth. And if some people can't handle the truth and are way too prudish and closed-minded to enjoy this splendid production...well, I guess it sucks to be them.
Eight O'Clock Theatre's AVENUE Q is performed at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo thru May 19th.