‘Avenue Q’ at Red Branch Theatre Company

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Good news, theatergoers. Your favorite sassy surrogate love puppets are back at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at Columbia’s Drama Learning Center.

Now through August 8th the neighborhood playhouse is whisking visitors away to Avenue Q, Broadway’s tunefully infectious goof on Sesame Street for those whose prime Sesame Street years are a decade or more behind them.

The cast of 'Avenue Q':  Taylor Washington, Brandon W Love, Bobby Grady, Naomi Muwowo, Javier del Pilar, Jeff Miller, Jena Elizabeth and Cheryl J. Campo.  Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.
The cast of ‘Avenue Q’: Taylor Washington, Brandon W Love, Bobby Grady, Naomi Muwowo, Javier del Pilar, Jeff Miller, Jena Elizabeth, and Cheryl J. Campo. Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

Yes, as sweet and catchy as Avenue Q is with its primary school lesson book by Jeff Whitty and its Tony Award-winning songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, this is no kiddies’ show.

The evening’s menu includes such rich foods as love and loneliness, the trap of easy sex, coming to terms with being gay, and the “secret” explosion of porn on the Internet.

It’s quite a full course, and it probably would upset a lot of stomachs if it all weren’t prepared with such generous wallops of charm and a winning universality.

This is a brief return engagement for Avenue Q at Red Branch, which had an SRO run with the show back in October 2012. The cast here is wholly new, however, as is its director, Megan Elizabeth Henderson (building upon the 2012 staging by Jenny Male).

Once again the young adult cast of likable grown-ups totally connects with the show’s silly, sometimes naughty, but always touchingly vulnerable spirit.

As before, it’s not always easy telling if the actors are wearing puppets on their hands or if small fuzzy characters have sprouted human appendages. In either case, the awesome array of original puppet sculptures by Kaitlen Sousa is a pleasure to see again.

This time out it is Javier del Pilar playing Princeton, the recent college grad who takes an apartment on Avenue Q while searching for his purpose in life. Pilar has a sort of Paul Rudd vibe to him — loose as a goose but loyal and trusting — that suits the role of the directionless English major to a T. He also has a fine singing voice for such favorite numbers as “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Money Song.”

Princeton finds his new neighbors are something more than ordinary. There’s Kate Monster, for instance, a substitute teacher and perpetual gal-pal who would like to start a school for other social outcasts like herself. Amy Williamson gives a relaxed, unself-conscious performance as Kate, delivering the show’s finest cocktail of comedy and poignancy in the numbers “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “A Mix Tape.”

Red Branch newcomer Brandon W. Love reveals an especially sweet voice and winning smile as Rod, who loves reading about Broadway musicals but rejects the idea he might be gay. Bobby Grady is his sympathetic roommate, Nicky, proving more than a supporting player when singing “If You Were Gay” and the tongue-twisting “Schadenfreude.”

Meghan Anderson and Lucy the Slut. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
Meghan Anderson and Lucy the Slut. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Caleb Uzcategui adds big laughs as the gruff but lovable Trekkie Monster, a furry evangelist for Internet porn, while Meghan Anderson’s slinky slut of a femme fatale, Lucy, conveys just what makes her act sell in the chanteuse number, “Special.”

More admirable support comes courtesy of Tori Stroud and Naomi Muwowo as the devilishly impish “Bad Idea Bears.”

The human performers appearing sans puppetry have to wing it out there on their own. Luckily this production has a real jewel in Cheryl J. Campo in the important role of Christmas Eve, the Japanese-American yenta on the block. With her hair piled up in a Bloody Mary bun, Campo nails the humor with expert comic timing and shows obvious vocal breeding in her solo about the emotional toll of a committed relationship.

Cheryl J. Campo (Christmas Eve) and Jena Elizabeth  (Kate Monster). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.
Cheryl J. Campo (Christmas Eve) and Jena Elizabeth (Kate Monster). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

Her huggable lug of a would-be hubby, Brian, is played with likability to spare by Jeff Miller. And Taylor Washington is a self-effacing delight as the avenue’s neighborhood celebrity and former child star, “Gary Coleman.”

The street set design by Heidi Castle-Smith is simpler than the one in 2012, but still there are times when the scene changes take longer than necessary — perhaps not too surprising in a show with such a short run, but still unusual for this professional outfit.

The multitudes of lighting cues are well navigated by Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin. And Musical Director Rachel Sandler makes the keyboard wizardry of Dustin Merrell and the drums of Dan Raderman sound like a full-service Broadway pit band.

Do not dare let this one slip by you unnoticed. You won’t even need your GPS to find Avenue Q. Just look to the sky and follow the brightest new stars to the Drama Learning Center.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Avenue Q plays through August 8, 2015 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. Call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase tickets online.

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