Vicki Paris Goodman
Hats off to the creators of Avenue Q for a delightfully unique audience experience. Not only do the musical’s puppet characters express a full range of emotion, but so do their human puppeteers. The overall effect of this high-profile Long Beach Playhouse production is a doubly satisfying performance for the price of one.
With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q’s hummable numbers cover a wide range of issues besetting the human condition. Finding one’s purpose in life, being a closeted homosexual, lacking self-esteem, being “a little bit racist,” and admitting to looking at Internet pornography all find their way into the lives of the show’s puppets and the familiar real-life dilemmas they face.
Given that the setting for Avenue Q is a blighted neighborhood somewhere in New York City, and gay themes intertwine the story line, the show immediately struck me as Rent with puppets, albeit decidedly more upbeat and thankfully lacking in the heart-wrenching heavy drug use and AIDS.
The impossibly talented Angela Griswold handles Kate Monster, who falls for newly arrived Princeton and whose dream is to open a school for monsters. Monsters, in this context, are fuzzy creatures who represent a race, like being black, Hispanic, or Asian. Princeton’s handler is the equally fabulous Andrew Manzani. He and Griswold are, as far as I’m concerned, the backbone of the entire show, establishing early on two exceedingly adorable puppet characters. Their childlike singing and speaking voices, altered intentionally for their characters’ cartoonish depictions, are a perfect match.
The run-down building’s super is none other than Gary Coleman, a wise role beautifully executed with lots of good fun by actress Kieara Williams.
We are overjoyed when Kate and Princeton begin dating, only to have the Bad Idea Bears (Rick Reischman and Nicky Finn) mess things up. The final nail in the budding relationship’s coffin comes courtesy of stage performer Lucy the Slut, given a persona reminiscent of Mae West by handler Madison Mooney. Lucy unfortunately fancies Princeton, and he lacks the self-confidence to resist her in favor of making things right with Kate.
Roommates and best buddies Rod (Matt DeNoto) and Nicky (Dennis Dyck) fall out over Nicky’s asking Rod if he is gay. Rod, who is not ready to come clean with regard to his sexual orientation, has a conniption and “unfriends” Nicky, rendering him homeless.
Even the several puppetless cast members depict fairly recognizable stereotypes. There is the domineering Asian Christmas Eve (Sawami Shinohara) who marries the willingly subjugated and slovenly Brian (Nicholas Woodall).
Kellee Elizabeth plays Kate Monster’s overly uptight boss, Mrs. Thistletwat. The depiction is hysterical in its recollection of a stern old maid who we’ve all had as an elementary-school teacher at some time in our past.
Brian Bozanich is amazing as handler for the oversized and oversexed Trekkie Monster. Trekkie Monster grosses us out until he surprises everyone by becoming the group’s main benefactor and, hence, the show’s hero.
I could have done without some of the more graphically sexual themes addressed in the show. I am not a fan of putting it out there strictly for shock value just because it reflects some aspect of social reality. I also took exception to the customary gratuitous bashing of political conservatives. This stuff just gets so old. Thank goodness there is so much to like about Avenue Q that the minuses were fairly inconsequential.
Andrew Vonderschmitt masterfully directs the youthful cast of this engaging popular Broadway musical. I was most impressed with the likable personifications the actors/puppeteers gave their puppets while simultaneously refining those characterizations using their own facial expressions and vocalization. This had to have been no easy feat. As an audience member, you find your eyes darting back and forth between puppet and handler in order to avoid missing a single expressive nuance. It is well worth the effort.
Live music with keyboard and drums are fully visible on stage. The action is complemented by Halley Wright’s splendid choreography and Naomi Kasahara’s fine set.
Avenue Q continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through Nov. 16. General-admission tickets are $24, senior tickets are $21, and student tickets are $14 with valid ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, for reservations and information. Tickets are also available at lbplayhouse.org .