Review: ‘Avenue Q’ at Workhouse Arts Center

The audience for Workhouse Theater’s production of Avenue Q (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Mark, book by Jeff Whitty), loved every minute. And what’s not to love? The 2003 Tony Award-winning, Sesame Street-inspired musical about a diverse and diverting set of characters trying to find themselves in a downscale Brooklyn-like neighborhood offers all members of an ensemble cast moments to shine, catchy songs, clever and sometimes raunchy lines, and gentle messages that never challenge an audience’s assumptions, not to mention the most energetic (perhaps the only) example of puppet sex in recent theatrical memory.

The trademark of Avenue Q is, of course, its use of Jim Henson-like puppets to play all but three of the show’s characters. An actor – two in some cases – manipulates each puppet, voicing the character and paralleling the puppet’s physicality and emotional state. The precision with which each actor is unified with his or her puppet produces a quite seamless joint characterization.

While the show’s score does not demand great voices, the voices in this production are excellent. The tone of the songs range from satirical (“The Internet is for Porn,” led by James Maxted’s gruff but ultimately philanthropic Trekkie Monster), to earnest (“Purpose,” sung by protagonist Princeton, played by Christopher Rios), to sentimental (“There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” a breakup lament beautifully sung by Meredith Eib’s  Katie Monster). Ruthie Rado vamps it up as Lucy the Slut, delivering a slinky “Special.” Rod (Casey Fero), a gay man in denial about his sexuality, expresses his straight façade in “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.”

Several dynamic ensemble numbers like “It Sucks to Be Me,” in which characters attempt to one-up each other’s tales of woe, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” a spoof on political correctness, and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want,” led by Jonathan Faircloth as Gary Coleman, enliven the proceedings. Gary Coleman also joins Nicky, Rod’s roommate, (Harrison Lee) in the duet “Schadenfreude,” the most entertaining exegesis of that concept ever.

A word about Gary Coleman: When the show was first produced in 2003, it is likely that most audiences were familiar with the real Gary Coleman’s work in the 1978-1986 sitcom, Different Strokes, as well as his subsequent financial difficulties. Coleman died in 2010, but the character based on him lives on in Avenue Q. It can be wondered whether younger audience members may need a footnote to understand the reference.

Stephanie Rudden, as aspiring therapist Christmas Eve, shows a strong belt in her musical numbers. As Brian, her boyfriend/husband, Jason Krage has an appropriately shambling, browbeaten presence. The Bad Idea Bears (Holly Kelly and Lauren Hayworth) – think malevolent cousins of Thing One and Thing Two – do their best to persuade other characters of the virtues of excessive drinking, first date intoxicated sex, and even suicide. But they’re so cheerful and cute about it, acting like adorable devils on both shoulders of Princeton, Katie, and others.

The Workhouse stage space is limited, but the production’s setting (credited to Jeremy MacDuff and Peter Everly) uses the space attractively and effectively. There are sufficient doors, windows, and other entrances that allow the action to flow, and the design and painting of the set convey the feel of a downscale urban neighborhood. As most of the actors wear all black, costumes are not a major element of the show, though costumer Mary Beth Smith-Toomey provided colorful outfits for non-puppet characters like Brian and Christmas Eve, particularly her wedding dress.

Save for a cold spot stage right that left Gary Coleman and other characters dimly lit on occasion, the lighting (designed by Kelly Brackley) worked well. A particularly nice effect showed characters silhouetted in the windows enjoying their own sexual moments during the aforementioned puppet sex scene. An equally nice moment for the sound design traced Trekkie Monster’s prolonged trek from his upper floor apartment to stage level. A large video screen was an important element of the production, onto which were projected occasional brief animations and words, carefully timed to coincide with various moments in the show. Clare Pfeiffer ran the sound and video aspects of the production.

The singers were accompanied by a small band consisting of keyboards, bass, reeds, and percussion. To the credit of music director Darin Stringer, the band and singers were well coordinated and balanced throughout. Director Joseph Wallen kept the pace lively and the characters vivid.

The internet not being exclusively for porn, a Google search demonstrates that there is something of a cottage industry selling or renting Avenue Q puppets, advertising authentic replicas of the puppet characters developed for the original New York production. Workhouse’s puppets were provided by Costume World of Deerfield Beach, Florida. Though it was difficult to tell for certain, some of the puppets appeared a bit smaller than their counterparts in other productions, creating a larger size disparity between the puppet characters and their human operators than is often the case.

One of the things that makes Avenue Q so endearing is that it celebrates a sense of community. Like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the show brings together a mixed lot of mostly young characters who congregate in a close-knit city neighborhood, where their daily routines bring them into frequent contact with one another. They actually get to know and care for each other where they live. Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist who lived in and loved Greenwich Village before it became prohibitively expensive, would heartily approve.

Running Time: Two hours and 22 minutes, including an intermission.

Avenue Q plays through April 1, 2018, at the Workhouse Arts Center Theater (building W-3 ) – 9518 Workhouse Way, in Lorton, VA. For tickets, call the Workhouse information number (703) 584-2900 or go online.

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