Avenue Q is that rarest of Broadway hits that captivates everyone, theatre geek or casual fan, who has blushed at its racy tunes or busted a gut seeing the hilarity firsthand. I am pleased to report that the new production by Constellation Theatre, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, is as raunchy, touching and all-around entertaining as any you will find on the Great White Way. The side-splitting, adults-only puppet show crackles like gunfire in an uptown alley but is as tight as a homeless person’s budget. The rockstar ensemble and characteristically innovative Constellation design team produce a show that is as gut-level funny as it is artistically precise. Run, do not walk to see this show before you experience the dreaded “Oh, I wish you bought tickets when they were still available!”, because I have no doubt this production will result in many a sold out house.
The world of Avenue Q (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty) is a grimy New Yawk neighborhood, but its residents are as close knit as anything out of Mr. Rogers. Princeton, played with deadpan earnestness by Matt Dewberry, moves into a shabby but affordable apartment run by none other than child star Gary Coleman, played with a delicious level of good humor by Eben K. Logan.
Gary introduces Princeton to the rest of the Avenue Q folks, including Kate Monster (portrayed by the heartbreakingly earnest Katy Carkuff), as well as Brian (the laughably lovable Mikey Cafarelli) and his Asian American fiancee Christmas Eve, played no less than perfectly by Justine “Icy” Moral. Then of course there is the fiercely satirical Bert & Ernie rip-off, Rod and Nicky: Rod (the excellent Vaughn Ryan Midder), the closeted Republican investment banker, and his well meaning but perpetually head-slapping roommate, Nicky (Alex Alferov, who adds his own awesome twist to a spot-on Ernie impression). Finally, there is Trekkie Monster (also voiced by Vaughn Ryan Midder in a vocal cord-bending feat) who spends most of his time enjoying (and, as it turns out, investing in) Internet pornography.
Although I have listened to and enjoyed the music of Avenue Q ever since its Broadway debut in 2003, Constellation’s production provokes delight anew in the raunchy, uncompromising songs. Music Director Jake Null coaxes uniformly stellar vocals from the ensemble and each number is probably worthy of a special shout out. But here are just a few of the greatest hits: “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”, where Princeton, Kate Monster, and eventually the whole gang come together in a kick line confession of their collective bigotry – nothing serious, of course (“Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes!”) just a pure and purely inappropriate love of ethnic jokes and the English language
There is “Schadenfreude”, the painfully funny ode to laughing at others’ pain, and the basically self-explanatory “The Internet is For Porn.” “The Money Song” proceeds in Act II as the gang raises funds for Kate Monster’s dream of an All Monster “Monstersorri” academy. We must have really been hooked by this time because when the puppets passed around baskets to the audience singing Give us your money! more than a few people actually did, including one gentleman who dropped in a 20… not a bad sales pitch, clearly. The greatest musical moments are when the whole neighborhood joins in, hanging out of spot lit windows and doors in true Sesame Street fashion. The greatest moment of this collective conviviality is during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” which builds to an amazing – ahem – climax that drove the audience wild.
The most distinctive feature of Avenue Q is of course the puppets, and watching the actors skillfully manipulate those twisted yet somehow adorable creatures (designed by Sesame Street veteran Rick Lyon) is one of the show’s primary delights. Director Allison Arkell Stockman and Puppet Coach Matthew Aldwin McGee are careful to ensure that every manipulation is specific and clear. When poor Rod wiped away a puppet tear at the end of “Fantasies Come True” his paean to his straight roommate, the audience literally awww’d like in a sitcom, and then laughed at our own ridiculous emotional attachment.
Other amazing uses of puppetry include the multipurpose talking boxes in “Purpose” and the puppet characters Lucy the Slut and Mrs. Thisteltwat, both played by Emily Zickler, who provides the most jaw dropping belt of the show at the amazing end of her nightclub number “Special”. Finally there is my personal favorite aspect of the show, the “Bad Idea Bears”, played by the hilarious Jenna Berk and Christian Montgomery, respectively, whose sole purpose is to convince people that their patently terrible ideas are right, like getting too drunk and taking a girl home (“She’s wasted!!”) under dubious circumstances.
As always, Constellation’s design is vibrant and spotless (although it does include many spot lights). A.J. Guban gives us a brick and concrete street scene that evokes both a crummy “outer outer borough” milieu but also a PBS kids show set with lots of doors and windows to be opened and sang out of. In contrast to his gray and grimy set, Guban’s light design is a kinetic, technicolor panoply of color that was as much a character as the puppets themselves. Solid sound design (with no mic flubs!) by Gordon Nimmo Smith and a simple but effective costume and property design (by Kara Waala and Matthew Aldwin McGee, respectively) round out the knock out design team. It is a joy to see a show where the performance and technical aspects are so well integrated.
Avenue Q is a campy, foul-mouthed delight from start to finish. Its flagrant disregard for political correctness is a breath of fresh air in buttoned-up Washington, and yet, underneath all the crude humor is a surprisingly touching message about living for today and helping others (if only to help yourself). Do yourself a favor, and Give Constellation Your Money! to go see Avenue Q, because I promise you will not regret it.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.