Avenue Q – Shock Puppets
A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX
One of my favorite parts of Avenue Q was when it ended – not because it’s a bad production (it isn’t) but because it’s when director Ryan Michael Haase gave a speech thanking the generous producer, John Neubauer, for enabling the production to even happen at all. In his post-show speech, Haase also introduced the extraordinarily talented (18-year-old!?!) Michael Paradiso who made all of the puppets for the show. The craftsmanship and creativity of this area teenager is very impressive. Big-time props to Paradiso, Neubauer and Haase for helping to lift Stillpointe’s production to a polished, professional caliber.
Avenue Q is Sesame Street for the Adult Swim channel, an after-hours puppet show with hardcore puppet sex, teddy bears that try to peer pressure you into hanging yourself and songs that include “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” The show’s characters are mostly 20- and 30-somethings, portrayed by actors and the puppets they operate, who are navigating early adulthood in a fictional outer borough of New York City.
The 2003 show, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical, includes three human characters and 11 puppet characters. The protagonist is 23-year-old puppet Princeton (played by Lawrence D. Bryant IV), who is looking for his purpose in life (aren’t we all?), and making raunchy love to a “monster” puppet and a sexy “human” puppet along the way (aren’t we all?). Princeton’s love interest and neighbor, Kate Monster (Erin Adams), is a kindergarten teaching assistant who dreams of opening her own Monstersori school for students “of fur.” Their other neighbors include Christmas Eve (Danielle Robinette), a Japanese therapist with no clients; Christmas Eve’s unemployed 33-year-old fiance Brian (Ken Jordan); roommates Nicky (Amanda J. Rife) and Rod (Adam Cooley); Trekkie Monster (Jon Kevin Lazarus); and building superintendent Gary Coleman, the child star of Different Strokes, who is played by a woman in most productions, as he is in Stillpointe’s, by hot-pants-wearing Ciera Monae.
All of the actors give committed performances and project the hell out of their songs. The show is very loud – from the live band at the back of the space at Emmanuel Episcopal Church to the actors, whose expressions and voices are turned up a few too many notches. Maybe it was first-night excitement, but the extreme expressiveness was distracting.
Avenue Q was cutting edge in 2003, but some of the subjects in the play don’t seem to matter in the same way in 2015. Closeted puppet Rod sings a song about having a girlfriend in Canada to prove to others that he is not gay. Coming out in 2003 was different than coming out in 2015. Rod’s denial of being gay is unsuccessfully played for laughs throughout the show. Cooley gives his all – and in a South Park’s Kenny accent even – but the character is kind of unlikeable, especially when he kicks out on the street the roommate he has a crush on.
There is also a Lucy the Slut puppet (played by Nina Kauffman, who also plays one of the Bad Idea Bears who encourages Princeton and Kate Monster to chug Long Island Iced Teas on a school night). It’s supposed to be funny that Lucy’s puppet nipple is exposed and that Kate Monster and Christmas Eve take verbal shots at her because of her overt sexuality, but it’s not. (The character’s real flaw is her racism against monsters.)
The oriental jokes by and of the Japanese Christmas Eve character aren’t funny, either. Neither is really anything Gary Coleman says. I felt for Monae, because you could see on her face she was expecting people to laugh at several of her lines that fell flat. She, along with all of the actors, have good stage presence, but the eagerness for laughs seemed to throw off their timing and delivery.
Trekkie Monster is a welcome break from the over-amped other characters. He celebrates his love of porn, invests wisely and gives generously. Trekkie is also played with quiet confidence and an endearing smirk by Jon Kevin Lazarus, whose performance is toned down, thankfully.
Janine Vreatt’s textured and multidimensional scenic design provides an attractive, Chinese-lantern draped background for director Ryan Haase’s precise, energetic staging.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Stillpointe’s Avenue Q is polished and lively with an evenly talented cast, but be prepared for a very loud show if you go. The subject matter leans more toward tired than inspired but it’s a good production and if you’re into it, you’ll be into it.
Running at Stillpointe Theatre through June 6th.
Contact Styx at: firstname.lastname@example.org.