The internet is really, really great for—well for buying tickets to Greenbelt Arts Center‘s production of Avenue Q. The multiple Tony Award-winning musical, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and book by Jeff Whitty, graces the little black box stage to start off the season, and what a bang of a start it is. Directed by Jeffery Lesniak with Musical Direction by Paul Nahay, this madcap musical—part flesh, part felt, and all felicific— will have you rolling in the aisles with laughter and having a glorious good time.
Set Designer John Decker does an incredible job with crafting the New York City streetscape. While seemingly just like every other rundown street in the big apple, Decker’s subtle splashes of color let you know you’re on Avenue Q. His attempt to make the exterior world transition into the apartments is less successful. While the sliding panels in the windows with cartoonish sketches of furniture is a brilliant idea, its execution was sloppy and jagged, causing awkward pauses in the scene changes and delaying the overall pacing of the show.
Having a live orchestra for this sort of production was fantastic. Lead by Musical Director Paul Nahay, the lively band keeps the music moving throughout the show and really heightens the experience of seeing this kind of show. There are times that due to the unmasked location of the instrumentalists that the band drowns out the performers, mainly during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” and “Schadenfreude.” Nahay does, however, show exceptional skill in coaxing and blending harmonies in this production. The key song that comes to mind is “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” where Nahay blends three part harmony sublimely to create a brilliant sound. “Fantasies Come True” is another example of blissful harmony that Nahay brings to the audience with his solid skill.
Avenue Q is not often recognized as a musical with a lot of dancing but Choreographer Rikki Howie deserves a nod for the subtle way she infuses simplistic steps into the show. Little box-steps and swing-rounds happen during numbers like “It Sucks to Be You” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” giving the performers a little extra movement for an all-round good time.
Director Jeffery Lesniak succeeds in executing the puppet action of this production, allowing the performers to blend with their puppets in a way that really serves the purpose of the show. The main performers who carry puppets emote their facial expressions to the puppets in many scenes which almost acts like a transference and makes the puppets appear even more animated. For this type of show, synchronization with puppet movement is key and Lesniak coaxes that from his performers in a way that marries flesh and felt harmoniously.
The vocal integrity of this show is sensational; keeping true to cultivated character voices while singing and still managing to carry quality notes that are clear and accurate. The most successful example of this is Nicky (Adam Newland). During both “If You Were Gay” and “The Money Song” Newland sings out with a crisp refreshing sound while still having a slow speak-easy voice that endears the audience to his character.
Playing opposite Nicky, as the edgy roommate is Rod (Michael Iacone). With a nasally sound and a spastic nature, Iacone brings this puppet to a vivaciously full life, tweaking out to the max during “If You Were Gay.” Iacone even goes so far as to make the puppet tremble uncontrollably right before a big emotional outburst and it causes waves of laughter throughout the audience. His spry movements that often involve dashing back and forth across the stage really enhance the character’s frenetic energy, especially during “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.” Iacone has a dulcet and mellow voice when he twines vocal harmonies with Kate Monster (Melissa Berkowitz) in their duet “Fantasies Come True.”
Berkowitz, as the woman of fur, brings a delightfully fresh outlook to the character, keeping her chipper and refreshing right up until the Act I finale song, “There’s A Fine, Fine Line.” Berkowitz gives a stunning and unique rendition of this number, gently easing into the song, even speaking some of the lines, but the true emotional depth comes flooding out when she hits the bridge of the number; a powerful crash of confusion, sorrow, and regret surging through her voice as she belts out the words. Taking that moment of sheer emotional expression and aligning it with her more fun and flighty side showcases the dynamic nature of Berkowitz’s performance.
It wouldn’t be Avenue Q without The Bad Idea Bears (Jenna Bouma and Joe Rolandelli). The pair synch up with two cuter than cute fuzzy bear puppets to inspire mayhem throughout the production. Both Bouma and Rolandelli use squeaky character voices that really make these two naughty bears stand out against the rest of the puppets. Rolandelli doubles up as the voice and main arm of Trekkie Monster; a drastic comparison with his gravelly sound. Keep your eyes on Rolandelli during Trekkie’s signature number “The Internet is for Porn” and see if you can keep yourself from laughing.
Bouma doubles up briefly as Mrs. Thistletwat, a cantankerous old woman that really sticks the screws to Kate, but more importantly as Lucy, the Slut; the character who vies for Princeton’s attentions. Bouma has a rich sensual voice that is perfect for “Special” and she really uses her body to express the lewd nature of the wanton puppet during this number.
Let’s not forget about good ol’ Gary Coleman (Temple Fortson) who is wrangling the renters as the building super. Fortson really plays up the cheesy winks to the audience and the exaggerated grins in true homage to her character’s namesake. Rocking out to “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” Fortson is a presence to be recognized in that scene, as well as when delivering the powerfully hilarious message in “Schadenfreude.”
Brian (Jim Adams) and Christmas Eve (Lauren J. Lowell) tie up the loose ends here on the avenue, the pair having a fluctuating dysfunctional chemistry that speaks volumes about their complex relationship. Adams is an eager grounded voice that has superb comic delivery for numbers like “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today.” His voice is easily recognizable in the larger group numbers and he carries his harmonies quite well. Lowell, as the sarcastic, albeit dotty, Asian stereotype on the block, fits the bill vocally but occasionally loses sight of which words she’s mispronouncing. This aside her portrayal of the character is pretty amusing and her vocal prowess really shines through during “The More You Ruv Someone.”
So if you’re all fresh faced and new and looking for a place to— one more you say? Oh that new guy to the avenue? Princeton (Stephen Backus) how could anyone forget Princeton? Backus gives an amazing portrayal of the lead puppet, really vocally committing to “Purpose” and finding the emotional depth in that uplifting song. Guiding the group through “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and becoming the ‘purpose’ of all his neighbors, Backus handles Princeton exceptionally well and is the perfect fit for the role.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Greenbelt Arts Center tackles wise-cracking puppets in “Avenue Q” by Will C. Franklin on Gazette.net.