Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of AVENUE Q at the Chestnut Street Playhouse
Through May 1st
One of the things I love about reviewing theatre is seeing performances for the first time, especially ones I’ve always wanted to take in but never had the chance. But probably just as much, I also enjoy attending beloved shows again and seeing how each troupe puts their own spin on them. It is as if it becomes new in that moment for me.
And that is exactly how I felt seeing Avenue Q at Chestnut Street Playhouse, the Tony Award Triple Crown-winner for best musical, best score, and best book told through the use of puppetry and live acting. Written by Jeff Witty with lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, this Norwich, CT community performance was directed by Shane William Kegler in their unique and charming, black box theater space.
Avenue Q enchants me, but this surely is one that’s rated mature, and for those of you who are not familiar, these are not your childhood puppets. With felt, fur, and various shades of skin, stories are told – some are PC and some are not. Some are funny, some are raunchy, and some completely cross the line – but most of them are those to which nearly everyone may relate. The characters ask themselves: What happens after college? Will I get a job? An apartment? How will I support myself? Will I make friends? Find a romantic partner? Have sex? Does everyone like porn? And for God’s sake, what can one actually do with a degree in English?
Avenue Q is shameless and unapologetic. It states the obvious and it doesn’t care what you think – because, frankly, the brains behind this witty book know exactly what you think and want to put it all out there and make you face it. With songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” it pokes fun at stereotypes and prejudice, exposing all of our inner thoughts in a brazenly humorous way. Kegler, who has a resume which not only includes directing, but also teaching theatre, adeptly directed his sizeable cast of ten actors and ten puppets. And as he says in his director’s notes, “Let’s just have fun and let the comedy be comedy.”
The simple set was replete with a double yellow line down the pavement, leading the way to Avenue Q. Princeton (puppeteer Ken Quiricone) has just graduated from college and is looking for an apartment. But “It Sucks to Be Me,” he says, because with only a B.A. in English, he’s got few options. As he searches for his life’s purpose he meets (or is tempted by) many along the way who also are in similar straits. Enter Kate Monster (puppeteer Rochelle Weinrauch) who’s looking for her own purpose and also a little love. The building manager, Gary Coleman (Briana Lewis), who has lost his “Diff’rent Strokes” television fortune, rents Princeton an apartment, nearby to Brian (Evan Brown) and his fiancée Christmas Eve (Tai Scavetta), roommates Nicky (puppeteer Chad Dominique) and Rod (puppeteer Corey Welden), and Trekkie Monster (puppeteer Kevin Ladd). These Avenue Q denizens chew over their issues which include wedding planning, job loss, coming out, and internet porn surfing.
Only three characters are solely human – Brian, Christmas Eve, and Gary Coleman – their presence is humorous and never appears odd or out of place among the felt and fur. The rest of the cast skillfully manipulate their puppets with hands and rods (some necessitating two sets of hands), and while the puppeteers are visibly side-by-side with their characters, their presence serves to enhance the engaging banter. We also are introduced to two Bad Idea Bears (puppeteers Dominque and Jenn MacPherson) who try to get inside Princeton’s head and like Freud’s id, sway him in inappropriate directions; Kate Monster’s rude and insensitive boss Mrs. Thistletwat (puppeteer MacPherson), and Lucy the Slut – yes, puppets can be sleazy – (puppeteer Kathleen Narowski).
In addition to puppet mastery, this entire troupe can sing! Leads Quiricone and Weinrauch nail it, as does Narowski. They all not only master their songs, but also their puppet’s voices, some of which harken back to a few Sesame Street regulars (Ricky and Trekkie Monster most especially).
Especially amusing also was when Quiricone’s Princeton interacted with the audience when he was soliciting funds to help out Kate Monster – he actually nabbed one theatregoer’s Vera Bradley bag (of course he gave it back!)
Shout outs also must go to Jason Phillips for music direction (and keyboard 1/conductor), Penni Bennett (keyboard 2), Catilin Fitzpatrick (reeds), and Richard “Gus” Guastamachio (percussion/drums). They provided wonderful musical accompaniment and in their unique set up behind a sheer center curtain, it was especially nice to actually see them perform as well as mouth the words to the comical songs.
So you might ask, Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street, er, I mean Avenue Q? Head down soon to Norwich’s gem, the Chestnut Street Playhouse where they’ll serve up this well-directed, well-acted, and well-sung lighthearted fare for just a few weekends more!
“It’s amazing how these little guys can say things that a mortal human could never get away with,” Dunham has said. “There’s some sort of unspoken license … when outlandish things come out of an inanimate object, somehow it equals humor.” – Jeffrey Dunham, ventriloquist, on the nature of puppets.
Puppets can get away with just about anything – racial slurs, gay jokes, gender bias, Schadenfreude, and live sex on stage. At least the puppets in Chestnut Street Playhouse’s Avenue Q: The Musical get away with all of the above and more. And they do it with style, grace, wit, and a large dose of irreverent panache.
Avenue Q is a tough play to tackle for a number of reasons. Not only do you have to find talented singers and actors, but puppeteers as well. As a theatre director myself, I’m always impressed (and envious) when a director pulls it off. So Shane William Kegler, my hat is off to you. Mr. Kegler, no stranger to directing, has done a masterful job of assembling an engaging, talented and charismatic cast. He utilizes every part of the theatre in the staging and blocking thereby overcoming any spatial limitations. Indeed, the intimacy of the stage and audience works to the play’s advantage. I personally like using the technique of breaking the fourth wall sometimes, and involving the audience (willingly or not) into the action of the play, especially in musical comedies. This worked extremely well during “The Money Song” when Princeton solicited the front row of the audience for money to the point of actually taking a woman’s purse onto the stage. As they say in the MasterCard commercials (or is it Visa?) the gag was priceless.
Ken Quiricone perfectly captures Princeton, the naïve, charming, and ultimately engaging recent grad seeking his purpose in life. Rochelle Weinrauch expertly brings to life Kate Monster’s more endearing qualities including loyalty, trust, and vulnerability via song and words. The bromance between the characters Rod and Nicky (yes, it’s complicated) is delightfully played respectively by Corey Welden and Chad Dominique. From one archetypal Scorpio to another, Evan Brown as the puppetless Brian was wonderful (all Scorpios are). Tai Scavetta makes an appealing puppetless Christmas Eve and serves as a good match to her significant other, Brian. Lucy T. Slut is devilishly played by the multi-talented actress and singer Kathleen Narowski. While the key character of Trekkie doesn’t get as much stage time as some of the other characters, his presence is always felt thanks to Kevin Ladd’s commanding voice. Chad Dominique and Jenn MacPherson display some nice teamwork and comedic timing as the Bad Idea Bears. Last but not least, Briana Lewis makes a great puppetless Gary Coleman. I always wondered if Mr. Coleman gave his permission to be a character in the play and, if he did, did he realize that he would be forever known as the handyman on Avenue Q more than any other part in his short (no pun intended) career.
Finally, kudos must go to the band; specifically, Jason Phillips (Keyboard 1/Conductor); Penni Bennett (Keyboard 2); Caitlin Fitzpatrick (Reeds) and Richard “Gus” Guastamachio (Percussion/Drums). The orchestra pit actually was partially visible through a mesh screen behind Avenue Q’s façade. The effect enhanced, rather than detracted, from the overall neighborhood ambience generated by the staging – another testament to Mr. Kegler’s creative direction.
While there is a disclaimer about presenting a play such as Avenue Q without offending anyone or worrying about being politically correct, the fact is that it’s a play about human nature performed via the metaphor of puppets. Besides, as Jeff Dunham, the ventriloquist says, puppets have an unspoken license to say whatever the hell they want and too bad, so sad if it’s not your cup of tea.