10/ 14-16, 21-22, 28-30 • 8 p.m.
The past two weeks have been a trial on my fortitude, so when heading to “Avenue Q” on Saturday evening, I was looking forward to an escape into hilarity, away from my woes. City Stage’s latest season premiere and Wilmington debut involves puppets—profane puppets acting like everyday humans, poking fun at mediocrity while living in its throes. They curse, argue and have sex. Into the show’s third number, “It Sucks to Be Me,” I realized I was among like-minded folk who also were struggling to make sense of the haphazard world in which they live. It was perfect serendipity.
First and foremost, “Avenue Q” is a blast! One of the most complimentary claims about City Stage is they continuously push and lick the edgy envelope on what gets staged locally. I commend them for bringing to town a debut like “Q,” which won three Tony’s in 2004. Secondly, the cast gives this show every ounce of quirky breath it deserves. Puppeteers not only act each character’s facial expression and body movement on cue and in full view, but they command the colorful Muppet spin-offs in every vocal pitch and diction, while singing and dancing. Most of them also play more than one puppet every scene change; it’s simply astonishing to watch.
A parody on “Sesame Street,” wherein neighbors greet each other and sing about whatever’s on their mind daily, the show opens among Avenue Q’s run-down brownstones—simply and effectively constructed by Scenic Asylum. Unlike “sunny days sweeping the clouds away,” these tenants slouch in the darker side of the human condition, whether making fun of one another or handing down practical advice that tells it like it is rather than like people want it to be: tied in bright ribbons with puppy dogs and rainbows. The reality that we’re told we’re special as kids finds its match in adulthood on Avenue Q—everyone learns quickly that “special” isn’t really afforded to the majority.
The show opens with a newly graduated English student and tenant Princeton, who is struggling to find his purpose in life. Jason Aycock gives the orange-faced puppet a hopeful endearment in his fresh-faced outlook as a grad, a time when everything seems promising and new. It doesn’t take long before he delves into the natural progression of worry once the daily grind of being unemployed and broke starts wearing on him. Aycock makes Princeton an ordinary, lovable young man, especially relatable in “Purpose.” The number also boasts cardboard boxes with goggle-eyes as backup singers and proves a feast for the eyes. The message ain’t so bad either: “Purpose/it’s that little flame/that lights a fire under your ass/purpose/it keeps you going strong/like a car with a full tank of gas.”
Aycock’s seamless transition into Rod is easeful, as he distinguishes young and hopeful into weary, self-conscious adult. One minute he’s onstage singing about finding life’s meaning before returning to sing about hiding from it in “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.” Rod’s purpose in the show is to come to terms with being gay; he’s also a Republican investment banker, who, according to his neighbor, Christmas Eve, no one would want to befriend. The weight of Rod’s conundrum seems unacceptably shameful for 2011: to be who you are without fear of being ostracized. Nonetheless, it’s still very real. That it shows up in modern art comes with applause as much as sadness, since it notes humanity’s lack of progression. “Avenue Q” irreverently tips its hat to such during the show’s final number, with a simple sign and break in silence (don’t blink or you might miss it!).
The best puppet onstage is Kate Monster, the elementary school teacher who dreams of opening a special school for monsters only. The little purple monster is enlivened because of the fantastic job Rachael Sutton does with the character. Every exaggerated eye pop and lip pout, every nervous bout of temerity and junction of self-doubt is near perfection. I love Sutton in this production; she knows exactly when to sass and snark it up, and she has perfect judgement in toning it down. She sashays with oomph, especially as her counter puppet, Lucy T. Slut, nemesis to Kate Monster. Her presence onstage ups the ante among local actors, and her solo, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” will ring true to many flailing relationships.
Trekkie Monster comes second in command to the most entertaining furball—though, he most certainly garners the most laughs. Adam Poole should audition for “Sesame Street”—he sounds so much like Cookie Monster and Ernie, it’s uncanny. Of Poole’s puppets, Nicky and Trekkie, the latter is the standout role. Trekkie is addicted to porn without chagrin, and Poole gives him a manic energy and cool demeanor unmatched by his co-stars. What starts out as Kate’s song, “The Internet is for Porn,” turns into a Trekkie hit for which the audience will hoot and holler. Poole really nails nuance with his characters, too, from the light snores of Nicky during a dream scene to Trekkie’s underhanded comments often heard in the midst of chaos.
In true fashion to the children’s TV show, three humans add to the quality of this parody. It’s so lovely to see Chiaki Ito onstage and not behind the keys; the music director mostly performs in the band during City Stage performances. Her role as Christmas Eve is a win. Ito plays a stereotypical Japanese transplant with broken English, pronouncing Ls like Rs. She’s a therapist-wannabe, hindered by a no-job, lazy bones husband, Brian (Bradley Evans), which entices many expected jokes of the husband/wife caliber. Her solo with Kate Monster, “The More You Ruv Someone,” should be many newlyweds’ first dance song (I even tapped my fiancé about it). It rightfully distinguishes—or not—that fine line between love and hate.
Evans completes the couple with perfect apathy, only shining under boisterous circumstances that garner him attention; hence, “I’m Not Wearing Any Underwear.” His philosophy—“unemployed rearranged spells opportunity!”—sits hopelessly on his wife’s shoulders. Evans is understated but filled with a large personality that shines subtly against the cast.
Tracy Byrd plays superintendent Gary Coleman (and, yes, many “Diff’rent Strokes” jokes ensue) with a wink and thumbs-up brilliancy. He gyrates against a broom stick like a professional stripper in “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”—played during the very verbose and colorful puppet sex scene. He pokes fun of everyone on Earth during “Schadenfreude,” the German word for reveling in others’ misfortunes. Byrd approaches the child-celebrity-gone-everyday-citizen without self-aggrandizing flair. Instead, he’s forthright and kitschy, plus, he gets to sing the best songs throughout the show. He does so with an amazing set of pipes, as heard in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (“Ethnic jokes may be uncouth/but only ‘cause they’re based on truth”).
Filling out the cast are the impeccable devils-in-disguise, the Bad Idea Bears, who squeal and laugh in high-pitches like demonic darlings. Adam Poole and Anna Gamel puppeteer them with zeal for being naughty. They’re like the bad influences from middle school who taunt teens to smoke behind the bleachers. And they’re fantastic as they try to get Princeton to buy a case of beer (“Hey, it’s better to buy in bulk!”) instead of paying his rent with the money his parents gave him. They’re the cutest duo of peer pressure ever to hit the stage, as they push Kate Monster to drink more yummy Long Island Iced Teas and forget about her teaching job in the morning (all so Princeton can get in her pants, of course).
Speaking of Gamel, she excels as every actor’s right-hand woman, often switching off puppets with her colleagues and helping them maneuver with ease between their characters. The fluidity of the cast changes are truly exceptional.
So many zingers run throughout the show, never does a moment flutter in boredom. Everything is spot-on, from the costume changes of the puppets, to the wicked lighting in Princeton’s nightmare wedding scene, to the wind howling throughout the theater as if atop the Empire State Building. Details give this show high production value. “Avenue Q”certainly will have folks singing their blues away, but only in the sense that misery enjoys company … and humor and maybe helping others, too. In the end, sometimes all we can do is laugh about life’s adversity and bask in the fact that it’s only “for now.” Nothing’s permanent after all—except death and taxes.