Pilllow Talking’s Review of AVENUE Q
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of Avenue Q at the Broad Brook Opera House, CT.
For Tickets and Info: Broad Brook Website
Note: Avenue Q has not been authorized or approved by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop, which have no responsibility for its content.
What do you get when you cross a multifarious bunch of hand puppets with adult subject matter, some of which is raunchy and moderately inappropriate? You get truth, sincerity, and side-splitting humor. Now how is that possible you might ask? Simply speaking, the delightful gods of live theatre make it so. Take a trip down to Avenue Q and you’ll know precisely why within the first five minutes after the curtain rises.
Speaking of puppets, I definitely was a Sesame Street kid back in the day, as were my own children. Whether in generations past or present, through these fuzzy characters we all gained knowledge about such issues as tolerance, how to deal with problems and difficult people, friendship, acceptance, and more. The iconic show was captivating and for most young people, we didn’t even realize we were learning these things. It all was done in the guise of fun and the horde of hairy monsters made it that much more entertaining.Fast forward to adulthood – combine the talents of music and lyrics creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book writer Jeff Whitty, with a shamelessly clear and unadulterated rip on Sesame Street, add in sex, porn, racism, and most importantly this generation’s lack of direction and purpose – and you have Avenue Q. But it truly is so much more than that. With a mix of live actors and puppeteers, as well as projected screen images and video shorts (by Lopez), this show just plainly works!
Enter Princeton, the puppet hand (and voice) of the young and talented Daniel Dietz. He’s just graduated from college and doesn’t know what in the hell he is to do next. He has no place to live, no money of his own (mom and dad are still funding the 20-something) and he’s smack in the in-between stage of life that we in psychology call “emerging adulthood” – that place where the not-there-yets want to explore every damn one of life’s opportunities, yet they can’t be financially independent from their parents, nor do they really care to be. But he’s not the only one – everyone on Avenue Q is in a similar boat.
It is these other characters, some of whom also are “emergers,” who eventually help Princeton to find that direction – the direction he terms his “purpose.” But it’s not that easy. Princeton has no idea what job he can secure with only a B.A. in English. Then he has to deal with some hefty relationship bumps – his “racially-mixed” fling with “person of fur” Kate Monster (puppet wrangler and lilting songbird Kellie Comer) which is later tainted by the temptations of Lucy the Slut (puppeteer Alysa Auriemma).
Princeton isn’t the only one with issues: odd-couple roommates, Rod (the perfectly uptight puppeteer Rodney K.) may or may not be gay, or at least isn’t ready to come out; and Nicky (extremely well cast and Cookie Monster-esque puppeteer Ryan Pipke) is shiftless and a slacker, but well-meaning. Then there’s Brian (the talented Hal Chernoff) who is an unemployed wannabe stand-up comedian, engaged to Japanese Christmas Eve (the ever-kvetching and hysterical Sandra W. Lee), and both are too long-in-the-tooth to still be on Avenue Q. Rounding out the main group of neighborhood denizens is the grouchy, porn-loving Trekkie Monster (again, the talents of Ryan Pipke) and the illustrious Diff’rent Strokes has-been Gary Coleman (the very funny Jami Witherell) who has sold his life’s possessions and been reduced to being a lowly building superintendent. Each of them is vying for top-dog status as to whose life sucks the most, as they belt out their woes in the wildly humorous “It Sucks to Be Me.”
There isn’t a weak link in the entire troupe. Each actor makes his or her mark with a well-developed and layered performance, embodying the unforgettable characters (while deftly wrangling their puppets), and providing tons of comic relief. Secondary, yet no less important characters of Boxes, Bad Idea Bears, Mrs. Thistletwat, Go Go Dancer, Ricky, and the Newcomer were played by puppeteers Tina Sparkle, Daniel Viets, Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh who fabulously rounded out the cast. Songs such as “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love),” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” among others, throw caution to the wind while putting it all right in your face. And a little-known term often used in social psychology, schadenfreude, or the delight we feel in seeing the misfortune of others, was the basis for a crassly hysterical tune sung by Gary and Nicky. Each well-written song and every well-developed scene brought to light real-world angst about everything from finances, career choices, and getting drunk to relationships, coming out, and prejudice. In the end you’ll get sucked into Avenue Q’s wildly fictitious world like a kid in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Avenue Q was expertly directed: artistically by Robert Lunde, musically by Kelly Sharp, and assisted by Anna Marie Johansen, and choreographed by Johansen and Lunde. Puppets were conceived and designed by Rick Lyon with puppetry training by Topher Polack. The simply perfect set was designed by Greg Trochill and painted by Audrey Corman. Kudos to the orchestra, directed by Sharp (also on piano), Steven Anderson on guitar/bass, Cliff Schofer on reeds, and Raymond Dandurand on percussion, as well as the rest of the production personnel.
This is my third visit to Broad Brook Opera House and I can’t imagine them producing anything but stellar theatrical pieces. Their diverse offerings have something for everyone – but if you’re currently a twenty-something, were once a twenty-something, or are about to become a twenty-something, you’ll laugh until your sides ache and identify with nearly every relevant issue Avenue Q brings to light. Catch it before it’s gone – the last show is February 21, 2016!
I remember when Avenue Q opened on Broadway in 2003. I resisted seeing it at the time. Despite my culture vulturism, I just didn’t have any desire to see a bunch of risqué puppets on stage. I was never a Sesame Street fan (not that there’s anything wrong with Sesame Street – so save those cards and letters). But I am no longer the same person that I was in 2003, I’ve mellowed since then, and the scope of my cultural interests has expanded.
So when I had the opportunity to finally see Avenue Q in what has become one of my favorite playhouses, the Broad Brook Opera House, I thoroughly enjoyed it, puppets and all! I am more of a smile-and-chuckle person than a guffaw-and-belly-laugher. But I am happy to say that I guffawed and belly-laughed all evening.
The original music and lyrics were written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with book by Jeff Whitty based on an original concept by Lopez and Marx. In the Broad Brook version, Robert Lunde served as artistic director, Kelly Sharp was the musical director and Anna Marie Johansen and Lunde were choreographers.
The play was riotous! As the artistic director said in his notes about the play, everyone can relate to something in the play and we all can learn from the candy-coated underlying messages about the evils of racism, prejudice, bias, selfishness and ethnocentrism (I knew I would use that word someday!)
The cast was fantastic. Having produced, directed, and written Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway with my muse and wife, I know how tough it is for professional actors to get off book, get the blocking down, and to emote. It is truly a herculean task, however, to get actors to do all of the above and to sing on key, dance and serve as puppeteers at the same time! Lunde has mastered that herculean task through his expert direction. Of course, shout outs must also go to Sharp for her stellar musical direction and Johansen and Lunde for their nifty choreography.
The five couples in the play all were equally matched. Daniel Dietz as Princeton, the newcomer to Avenue Q and his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Kate Monster, portrayed by Kellie Comer, had just the right amount of naivete, vulnerability, and charm. Rod played by Rodney K. (love the last initial credit) who was in Broad Brook’s Man of LaMancha and Nicky played by Ryan Pipke were the spot on-again/off again best friends. Christmas Eve and Brian, respectively, hilariously played by Sandra W. Lee and Hal Chernoff, were the perfect modern day couple who deftly show that there indeed is a fine line between love and hate. The last pair, the Bad Idea Bears, were devilishly played by Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh and Daniel Viets. Watching them I was reminded of the iconic devil on the shoulder of Tom Hulce in Animal House. When Jami Witherell first introduced herself as Gary Coleman, I said to myself this casting is not going to work. But by the end of the play, I was saying Jami Witherell is Gary Coleman. She was terrific. Rounding out the cast, Lucy the Slut (and temptress) was convincingly played by Alysa Auriemma. Many of the actors doubled as puppeteers, so special notice should be given to Tina Sparkle (who also played the Newcomer), Alysa Auriemma, Daniel Viets, Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh, and Ryan Pipke (who made a great Trekkie Monster).
Great orchestrations and arrangements by Stephen Oremus and executed by members of the band including Kelly Sharp (musical director/pianist), Steven Anderson (guitar/bass), Cliff Schofer (reeds), and Raymond Dandurand (percussion.)
Finally, props must be given to the puppetry trainer Christopher “Topher” Polack whose training obviously was instrumental in bringing the puppets to life.
All in all, it was a great night. (Of course it didn’t hurt that my wife won the 50/50 drawing that the Opera House does during intermission.) Avenue Q represents the third straight successful hit we’ve seen in the Opera House’s current season (She Loves Me and Man of La Mancha being the prior two shows). Looking forward to more Broadway-quality work in the future from the Broad Brook Opera House!