Review: ‘Avenue Q’ at Vagabond Players

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Vagabond Players’ Avenue Q, expertly directed by Eric C. Stein, is a “Triple Crown”-winning musical (Tony for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book) with a spectacular cast. The show is another big hit for Vagabond, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary at a gala October 16th at nearby Admiral Fell Inn. With Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and Book by Jeff Whitty, the show relates the story of a college grad in pursuit of his life’s purpose.

 First Row: Calla Fuqua, Taylor Washington, Ryan Gunning, Emily Boling, Michael McGoogan MacKay. Second row: John Sheldon, Michael Paradiso, Jim Baxter, Aimee Lambing, Linae' C. Bullock, and Andrew Worthington. Photo by Tessa Sollway.

First Row: Calla Fuqua, Taylor Washington, Ryan Gunning, Emily Boling, Michael McGoogan MacKay. Second row: John Sheldon, Michael Paradiso, Jim Baxter, Aimee Lambing, Linae’ C. Bullock, and Andrew Worthington. Photo by Tessa Sollway.

But what is Avenue Q exactly? It’s mostly a grown up, politically incorrect version of TVs “Sesame Street”, complete with 20-plus songs, visual alphabet tricks, puppets and problems for grownups. Chief among the characters is fresh-faced English degree wielding Princeton, played by the uber talented Jim Baxter who faced the challenges of life when he moved to the titular Avenue Q.

Princeton encountered many an interesting character along the way, including the avenue’s superintendent, child TV actor Gary Coleman (what!?), who was played with an unbeatable combination of powerful vocals and understated humor by Taylor Washington, who founded the company Queens Sing; Brian, a failed comedian, played by the cheerfully amusing Michael McGoogan MacKay (who was also wonderful as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest at Spotlighters Theatre); Christmas Eve, Brian’s Japanese fiancée,  played wonderfully by MacKay’s real life fiancée Emily Boling; and most importantly, for the sake of the love story, Kate Monster, played fabulously by Aimee Lambing.

Adding to the eclectic world of Avenue Q was (couple?) Rod (the marvelously good Andrew Worthington, who is a Baltimore County, choral, theater and special education teacher) and his roommate Nicky (well played by puppeteer and puppet builder Michael Paradiso), and the grouchy, candid-mouthed Trekkie Monster (the fantastic John Sheldon).

The Company simply slayed the opening number, “The Avenue Q Theme”, which laid bare all the anxieties, shortcomings and hopes of the characters. From there, Baxter’s excellent solo of “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” segued into the upbeat, yet thought-provoking “It Sucks to Be Me”, which stood out due to Washington’s powerful vocals, and included the voices of MacKay, Lambing, Worthington, Paradiso, Boling and Baxter.

It got better from there; probable couple Nicky and Rod performed “If You Were Gay”, featuring Worthington and Paradiso’s well-matched vocals. The central theme of the show—finding one’s purpose—returned in Princeton and Company’s “Purpose.”

 Jim Baxter and Taylor Washington. Photo by Tessa Sollway.


Jim Baxter and Taylor Washington. Photo by Tessa Sollway.

Washington’s commanding vocals as Gary Coleman, made “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” one of best numbers in the show. The thought-provoking lyrics were also sung by Princeton, Kate Monster, Brian and Christmas Eve. The number even featured a left-right kick line (wonderfully choreographed by Angela Stein).

Sheldon’s Trekkie Monster, along with Kate Monster and The Guys raised the goofy “The Internet Is for Porn” to a high level of hilarity. As Kate Monster and Princeton fell for each other, along came “Mix Tape”, which featured a wonderful solo by Lambing. It was amazing to see the emotions wrought by Lambing’s and Baxter’s puppetry.

MacKay, as would be comedian Brian, did some outrageous dance moves and fantastic singing in “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”. This guy’s got a future in comedy for real!

Even comedies must have conflict, and this show had conflict galore in the form of Lucy the Slut, played with comic sultriness by Calla Fuqua, who created a love triangle along with Princeton and Kate Monster. Fuqua effectively moved the story along with “Special”.

The highlight of the show, indeed what made it the epitome a great show, was “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”, which featured the R-Rated puppetry of Lambing and Baxter, depicting Kate Monster and Princeton getting it on in bed, and the vocals of Gary Coleman, the Bad Idea Bears (Ryan Gunning and Linae’ C. Bullock ), and Company.

“Fantasies Come True” by Rod, Kate Monster, Nicky and Princeton, led to (gay?) Rod’s chuckle-inducing “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”. I loved Lambing’s solo in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” to close out Act One.

Act Two kept the energy, and the laughs coming, with Princeton’s reprisal of “It Sucks to Be Me”, and “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment” by Brian and Company.

Avenue Q depicted a strange world, in which Princeton could face prejudice for dating a “monster” like Kate, but love pushed through in the story in songs like “The More You Ruv Someone” by Christmas Eve and Kate Monster, which featured touching vocals by Boling.

Washington’s acting and singing elevated “Schadenfreude”, as Gary Coleman and Paradiso’s Nicky discussed the finer points of getting enjoyment from others’ suffering. Kate Monster, Nicky and Princeton sang the wistful “I Wish I Could Go Back to College”. Nicky, Princeton, Gary Coleman and Company sang about finances in “The Money Song” and Trekkie Monster and Company moved the story along with “School for Monsters”, and then reprised “The Money Song”.

Lambing and Baxter killed their reprisal of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and next, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English (Reprise), and “For Now” by the Company brought the show to a rousing close.

One of the unsung stars of the show was Music Director Stephen M. Deininger, who had a great band to work with, including himself on piano, Max Kazanow on guitar, Katie Marcotte on reeds, Tom Jackson on bass, and Delray Gaither on drums. Avenue Q features many video sight-gags displayed on a TV screen, suspended above the stage (including a Sesame Street-like count down from 15 to 1 to signal intermission). Those gags worked effectively due to Lighting and Set Designer Joel Selzer. Selzer’s set, built of a few painted flats, depicted a street in “any-neighborhood” New York City. Paradiso’s puppeteering skills no doubt elevated the performances of the cast, and Washington is a talent to watch.

Calla Fuqua and Michael McGoogan MacKay. Photo by Tessa Sollway.

Calla Fuqua and Michael McGoogan MacKay. Photo by Tessa Sollway.

Vagabond Players’ Avenue Q, is an excellent production with an unforgettable score and lots of laughs. Take a singing stroll down Avenue Q before it closes!

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Avenue Q plays through November 20, 2016 at Vagabond Players – 806 South  Broadway, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563,9135, or purchase them online.

 

 

 

 

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