It sucks to be you! Or at least it will suck to be you if you miss out on seeing Olney Theatre Center’s incredible production of Avenue Q! This Tony Award-winning, envelope-pushing, puppet-sex-having, uproarious feel-good-about-feeling-bad musical romp will brighten everyone’s day but only if you drive out there and see it!
Directed by Artistic Director Jason Loewith, who sadly does not have a puppet of his own, with Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra— who does have an awesome puppet of his own that’s even dressed in a tuxedo— this wicked comedy is one musical you’re unlikely to forget for the whole rest of the season. With Book by Jeff Whitty, and Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, this brilliant production of this maturely humored musical is only for now, so don’t wait to get your tickets!
The gritty grime of Alphabet City never looked so good than as it does on Scenic Designer Court Watson’s set. The avenue itself bends into a half-‘L’ shape just like an actual meandering street that shifts about in New York City. Watson’s building design is an expression of spatial genius; simple grungy apartment buildings that have fold-out appendages swinging outward from the stage’s inner depths to showcase the inside of the various puppet apartments. Even the dinghy cement stairs that lead down into the audience are a testament to the general filth of the city that never sleeps. Watson captures the essence of the post-collegiate life far down in Alphabet City with this filthy couture approach to the aesthetic.
Lighting Designer Andrew Griffin really brightens up the dismal days on Avenue Q with his intense and frequent use of colors. Creating a visual cacophony of homosexual pride blinking through the windows during “If You Were Gay,” Griffin adds jolts of pizzazz to this hysterical number. Many of the musical numbers feature Griffin’s enthusiastic touch— including the pink light bath the floods the stage during “The More You Ruv Someone.” Lewd lighting is the perfect touch in shades of tawdry purple and sinful scarlet, blinking in opposition, during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” and Griffin even finds a way to incorporate a disco ball or three into the production at a few different moments.
Projection and Animation Designer JJ Kaczynski maximizes the use of the projection screen throughout the performance. While some animations are a standard for the production, Kaczynski goes above and beyond to really put the otherwise out of place digital screen to use. Projecting a sign for a closed down nightclub whenever the board is not in use during a musical number is one of Kaczynski’s many little brilliant uses. Changing the banner that explains why the club has closed— from ‘under new management’ to ‘closed for artistic differences’— is another layer of exciting minutia that Kaczynski works into the show for the keenly observant to enjoy.
For a streetwise comedic musical there is a surprising amount of dancing that pops up throughout the performance. Choreographer Bobby Smith infuses little shuffle-steps that are crisp and unobtrusive, creating an eye-popping surprise when the characters break into these little numbers. Smith’s choreography pops up toward the end of group numbers like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “What Would You Do With a B.A. in English?/Opening.” The routines are incredibly simplistic but exceptionally precise and sharp; making for little microcosms of Broadway dances inside a big comedy and song-heavy show.
Musical Director Christopher Youstra brings the music directly to the audience by incorporating the orchestra into the set. Placing the live orchestra on the rooftop of the apartment buildings brings the sound up and out; creating the perfect blend with the performers so that there is never a volume control issue. Youstra starts the show with his puppet conductor dressed to the nines in a tuxedo, taking a bow toward the audience before hitting the keys for the main theme. Youstra conducts the orchestra and creates crisp, clean sound music that makes for an excellent sounding performance.
Director Jason Loewith demonstrates his perceptive understanding of how to block a small-cast musical on a large stage so that there is nary a moment when vast expanses of space feel open and empty. Employing the stagger technique throughout the production when the company takes to singing group numbers keeps from having a tiny clump of actors and puppets in one small location on the otherwise enormous stage. His best use of this tactic is during “I Wish I Could go Back to College” having the three soloists creating a triangle that spans the stage, in their own tightly focused spotlight as they sing. Little touches make the production all his own, like rolling on the miniature baby grand for Christmas Eve at the end of “The More You Ruv Someone” and having the fantasy ballet dance routine occur in the middle of “Fantasies Come True” with a Nicky and Rod. Loewith makes the production an enjoyable success for every audience member.
Giddy stupidity is running rampant between the Bad Idea Bears (Tracey Stephens and David Landstrom.) The enthusiasm with which Stephens and Landstrom approach the roles of these loveable furry disasters is infectious. Stephens, doubling as the prudish Mrs. T, throws her all into shaking that particularly ancient puppet about, achieving the ‘old and reserved’ description in that moment. As a Bad Idea Bear, Stephens is chipper and hilarious. Landstrom gives a similar performance, really engaging with the ‘bad ideas’ as they come. This disastrous duo is half the fun when it comes to making decisions on Avenue Q.
Brian (Evan Casey) and Christmas Eve (Janine Sunday) are the resident lovebirds of the block. Casey, who is dolled up to look like a true college burnout, plays his repressed character well against the domineering fiancé played by Sunday. Casey’s only solo number, “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” is a comic leap of laughs that happens in under a minute. Sunday creates an accent for the character’s stereotype that, albeit inconsistent at times, serves the purpose of making her stand out in numbers like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Her big expressive number, “The More You Ruv Someone” is delivered with exceptional comic timing juxtaposed against a deep almost operatic style of singing creating a truly hilarious number in the performance.
Sometimes all it takes is a wink and a smile to be noticed in a show, and Gary Coleman (Kellee Knighten Hough) has both. With vibrant vocals that really blast outward during “Schadenfreude,” Hough nails the character with vigorous tenacity. Really rocking out to “You Can be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” Hough takes the first full verse of this song and loves it right into the broom she’s holding. Her stage presence is impressive, particularly in this number, and her vocal consistency is spot on, a true vocal powerhouse that livens up her two big production numbers. Her comic timing is spot on as well; an excellent performance given to the tune of sassy, superior, and sensational.
Trekkie Monster (Stephen Gregory Smith) is a big ball of loveable, adorable, smutty fur. Smith bears down and adds gravel to his voice when playing the sex-addicted puppet, creating the expected sound from the big furry fella. Truly making the role his own, Smith has a priceless moment during “The Internet is for Porn” where he pans to and plays the audience. The result was thunderous applause and laughter. Managing to not only speak in Trekkie’s voice-but sing clearly in it as well-is an effort well worth rewarding.
Smith doubles up as the voice and occasional puppeteer for Nicky. Creating a completely different vocal style for this character, Smith showcases his ability to cleanly separate the two puppets in his throat. Nicky’s spastic showmanship shines through during “If You Were Gay” and in the duet of “Schadenfreude” with Gary Coleman. Smith’s voice makes brilliant 3-part harmonies with the two principle puppets in “I Wish I Could go Back to College” as well.
Kate Monster (Rachel Zampelli) has a dream. Rachel Zampelli gets two dreams worth of performance in this production, getting to voice both the leading female and her counterpart, Lucy the Slut. Zampelli also creates exceptionally distinctive voices for both characters and like Smith does a brilliant job of voicing the puppet that she isn’t always holding. Her saucy seductive side, channeled through Lucy, really slides out during “Special.” Zampelli makes Kate particularly mild, lounging on her couch lost in thought at the top of “Mix Tape.” But her most stunning moment is featured during “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” the breakup ballad that every girl can relate to. Rather than playing the song with sorrow and simpering emotions, Zampelli belts the number with ferocious feelings of anger and bitterness, hardening her heart against the pain rather than allowing it to fracture; a truly compelling and unique rendition if ever there was one to be heard. Taking on two puppets can be a challenge but taking on two principle voices can compound that challenge.
For Sam Ludwig the challenge is accepted, handled, and conquered with an incredible outcome. Playing both the main puppet Princeton and the side-plot focal point Rod, Ludwig gives a phenomenal performance as both of these characters. With pristine vocal sound regardless of who he is singing as, Ludwig really carries the melody with vocal strength and clarity for “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” in both voices. As Princeton, Ludwig gives an impressive rendition of “Purpose” including some elevated octave variations toward the end of the number. Ludwig creates a fascinating physicality for Rod, making the puppet tremble with reserved rage or nerves, and his voice is exasperated even when the problems are minor. His rendition of “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada” is played to the epitome of campiness with a surging desperation charging through it. Ludwig is stellar in both roles; carrying the banner of perfection in this production.
Remember that this production of Avenue Q is only for now, and it would be a really shame if you missed out on the biggest summer musical in the area. There is life outside your apartment, and it’s happening at Olney Theatre Center, but you’re only going to get to see it if you get on out there and see it!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Avenue Q plays through July 16, 2014 at Olney Theatre Center-2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.
Finding Their Purpose: Meet the Cast of Olney Theatre Center’s ‘Avenue Q’: Part 1: Rachel Zampelli.