Sunday, June 8, 2014

REVIEW: “AVENUE Q” OFFERS SUPERB TAKE ON KIDS’ SHOWS FOR MATURE AUDIENCES!

By Ruth Ross

Quick: What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word "puppets"? Jim Henson and Sesame Street, right? Well, add the word "adult" to puppets, and you get Avenue Q, the snarky, profane, hysterical take on a children's show now being performed by the very talented folks at 4th Wall Theatre in at the Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield.

Recent college grad Princeton ("What Do You Do with a BA in English?") moves to Avenue Q, a rather rundown neighborhood in New York City that is populated by a mix of human beings and puppets, much like Sesame Street. But here, in a book penned by Jeff Whitty, instead of dealing with learning the alphabet or the colors, the denizens (right) must cope with unemployment, sexuality, racism, pornography addiction and a search for a purpose to their lives.

Robert Lopez (“Frozen”) and Jeff Marx have composed a sprightly score to convey the vicissitudes of city life, whether it be recognizing that "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" or "You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love"). These are among the 20 individual songs warbled by 11 actors, only three of them not operating puppets. All are to be commended for making us believe that those puppets are talking, singing and dancing; in the beginning, one tends to look at the human operators, but within a short time, it is easy to believe that the puppets are real!

Kate Swan has directed this mayhem with a sure hand, insuring that the actors move around the stage and through the exits fluidly and without bumping into one another. And the backstage assistants deserve kudos for switching puppets when needed in a jiffy!

Michael Campbell (left) is terrific as Princeton, the eager beaver new college grad who's downsized even before he starts his new job and decides to seek his purpose in life. Helming Kate Monster is Tara Haight, whose lovely singing voice and endearing personality match that of her green, furry puppet. Gonzalo Valencia and Johnny Vento deftly manipulate and speak/sing for Nicky and Rod, clones of Sesame Street's Ernie and Bert, respectively, but poking fun at the Right's labeling the two original puppets as "gay."

As Lucy T. Slut, Madeline Fansler (right) sashays around the stage much as her vampy puppet would; she's outrageously seductive as she raunchily sings about making everyone she meets feel "Special"—given her name, you can figure out just what she means! Kate Hoover and Jacob Haury control the Bad Idea Bears (the opposite of "Care Bears") who tempt Princeton to spend his meager funds unwisely; that they are so cute makes their treachery even more ominous.

Rounding out the puppet ensemble is Tom Schopper as Trekkie Monster (left), a very furry, large mammoth with a huge mouth, a gravelly voice and a taste for porn on the Internet, similar to Cookie Monster's love of. . .cookies! Two things to note here about the actors' manipulation of the hand puppets: For one, keeping their arms up requires great stamina (they engaged in strength training during rehearsals), and their ability to give cloth heads facial expressions without doing much of anything are to be commended. None of the eight are puppeteers; they had to learn how to move their props' mouths and shift their hands with rods. I would have thought they had been trained at the Jim Henson Creature Shop! Bravo!

The human characters are equally as excellent. Danny Egan's awkward Brian is an unemployed and not very funny would-be comedian. The adorable Asami Tsuzuki (right with Tara Haight and Kate Monster) plays his fiancée/wife Christmas Eve with great flair as she mangles the English language and pronunciation (she sings "The More You Rove Somebody" and calls her mate "Blian"). Her character, as written, is the antithesis of politically correct, but it fits the show's snarky attitude. Finally, Lynette Sheard is hilarious as the actor Gary Coleman, providing great fun with celebrity jokes, many of which make fun of the real comedian. Sheard and Valencia have great fun with a ditty called "Schaudenfreude" wherein they express their pleasure at others' troubles. They even spell it out at the end, just as they do on Sesame Street.

By now, you have probably surmised that this is not a children's show. There is coarse language, adult themes and full puppet nudity (there is even a sex scene!), so leave the kids at home. Set design by Duane McDevitt (left) conveys a city street with a bit of a cartoonish air; Nicholas Mammo's lighting and Joe DeVico's sound complete the picture. Marc Dalio and Joe DeVico are responsible for the cartoon projections above the set that enhance the Sesame Street feeling. And Music Director Markus Hauck directs an unseen ensemble that accompanies the puppets/actors without ever overpowering them.

Avenue Q opened Off Broadway in 2003, moved to Broadway that same year, and continues to be performed Off Broadway to this day. It ranks 23rd on the list of longest-running shows. However, you do not need to spend money on tolls, parking and dinner to see Avenue Q. For a reasonable admission and a super experience with a different style of musical theater, just head on over to Bloomfield by June 15 to see a thoroughly professional production every bit as good as the original!

Avenue Q will be performed at the Westminster Arts Center, 449 Franklin Street, Bloomfield through June 15. Friday and Saturday evening performances are 8 PM and Sunday matinees are at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.566.9255 or visit www.4thwalltheatre.org.