Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
The cast consists of three human and eleven puppet characters, who reside on the fictional Avenue Q in New York City. They are young adults in search of their purpose in life, contending with real-life problems such as racism, self-doubt and unemployment, and much of the humor that arises comes from the ways "Sesame Street" is both channeled and perverted. The score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx is witty and unapologetically adult-themed, paying twisted homage to "Sesame Street" with hummable songs like "If You Were Gay" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."
Princeton (a lovable Aaron Boles) is a recent college graduate with a BA in English. Newly unemployed, he's searching for a place to live. On Avenue Q he finds a diverse group of human and puppet characters. His new neighbors include Kate Monster (an incredibly expressive Brett Williams), a kindergarten teacher who wishes to start her own monster school. Rod and Nicky (Bradley Waelbroeck and a wonderfully animated Freddy Perkins, respectively) are a humorous set of Bert-and-Ernie-style roommates. Brian (Brett Yates), an aspiring comedian, and his fiancée, social worker Christmas Eve (Alex Matsuo) are the human couple on this street. Trekkie Monster (a fantastic Aubrey Comperatore) is a horny take on the Cookie Monster, and his main pastime is surfing the internet for porn. Without explanation but giving a strong indication of the off-beat humor of this show, Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman of TV's "Diff'rent Strokes," played here by a drily humorous Brandi Parker), after falling on hard times, has become the building's superintendent. Before the evening is over, this group of people and monsters will realize that finding one's purpose is not as easy (or as noble) as one might hope.
Beautifully designed and crafted by Kevin Roberge, assisted by Kerry Falkanger, the puppets are truly the stars of this show, distinctly different from, but also paying homage to, the Broadway originals. The puppets (both on Broadway and here at RLT) are animated and voiced by actors who are plainly visible onstage. It is a work of art for actors to maneuver on stage with their felt counterparts, but this can present a challenge, too, potentially leaving the audience unsure whether to watch the puppet or the puppeteer. There were moments in the performance I saw when the puppetry work was not fully executed; puppets didn't always move their mouths in time with the words, or they succumbed to the "tired arm stare," gazing up into the rafters as their humans grew fatigued. Despite this, the cast is overall very strong and can be expected to develop their stamina as the run continues.
Some of the puppeteers are as much of a joy to watch as the puppets themselves. Particular mention goes to Brett Williams, who fully embodies Kate Monster; Freddy Perkins and his left-hand man Matthew Sheaffer, who work together seamlessly as Nicky; and Aubrey Williams, who tackles the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster with gusto and just enough of a Cookie Monster gravel to her voice. The supporting puppet character of Lucy the Slut is brought to amazing life by Lydia D. Kinton; her powerful voice and deadpan humor reminded me at times of Lea Delaria.
Jesse R. Gephart has translated the inventiveness of the original Broadway production for this stage, adding some fresh inventiveness as well. The scenic design by Duncan Jenner and Miyuki Su is a perfect evocation of a rundown avenue in New York City, making wise use of the single set with walls that open up to interiors and windows that open, to give characters brief entrances as in scenes from the sixties TV show, "Laugh-In." Though there were some minor opening-night malfunctions that kept some jokes from landing, Cailen Waddell's lighting design feels effective. Unlike the Broadway production, which tries to minimize the puppeteers in muted grays and blacks, Jenny Mitchell and Vicki Olson have tied the design of the puppets to the costume design for their human equivalents, though this does not seem uniform throughout the cast. One of the highlights of this production is a series of animated shorts by Kat Randle which are projected onto the set to supply humorous commentary on what is happening on stage, again reminiscent of PBS favorites like "Sesame Street"' and even "The Electric Company."
By combining childhood nostalgia with the hard truths faced by new adults, and serving it all up with mature humor that leaves us laughing even as we wince at the underlying truths, Avenue Q sounded a fresh chord on Broadway and was rewarded with the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004. Raleigh Little Theater is to be saluted for taking a risk with this nontraditional show; it is a risk that has paid off.
Avenue Q is presented by the Raleigh Little Theatre in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre. 301 Pogue St., Raleigh NC through June 25th, 2017. Tickets are $28 for adults, $24 for students (through college) and seniors (62 and up), and $15 on the first Sunday for all. Tickets and information can be found online at www.raleighlittletheatre.org or by phone at 919-821-3111. Note: Parental Guidance Strongly Suggested.
Music and Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx