(First of all, I don’t have pictures from the production of Avenue Q at the Empire. That’s the thing about the interwebs: you can find tons of shit, but not always the exact shit you want. So don’t expect the puppets to look the same if you go see the show. The ETC’s puppets are better anyway,and even if they aren’t you won’t know until after you see it. Second, this whole article is a great big spoiler; deal with it. I love spoilers. I love to go to daycare centers and tell children about Santa Claus and then explain what FICO is and how someday it’s going to take all of their money. I love to go to weddings where old ladies are dancing to YMCA and tell them all about the history of the Village People and what their songs really mean. That’s just the kind of heartless bitch I am. Now enjoy!)
It’s no wonder that Avenue Q resonates with so many people: beneath all the potty-mouthed lyrics and celebration of internet porn, the show is really about the struggles we face when growing up and growing older, and that nagging desire to find someone to keep us safe in a world that isn’t always as friendly as we’d like it to be.
For those who are new kids on the block, let’s back up a bit. Avenue Q is sort of a dirty Sesame Street, and anyone who was raised on Big Bird and Cookie Monster will see echoes of their childhood favorites on stage. But this is no public television fam-fest: Trekkie Monster (Evan Montgomery) is addicted to internet smut and is constantly masturbating, neighbors Princeton (Steven Grant Douglas) and Kate Monster (Lori Boucher) get naked and loud after a night of drinking, and a big chunk of the ensemble, including good-natured building super and former child star Gary Coleman (played expertly by Natasha Thomas), sing a rousing song about the prevalence of racism. This show is not for the easily offended, but you miss a lot if you get yourself all up in a lather and walk out after the first (or fifteenth) F-bomb or after puppets start dropping trou. And let’s face it: if you’re a Janessa fan, you probably aren’t offended by some raunchy humor or profanity. Let’s proceed.
Like so many other coming of age stories, Avenue Q isn’t just about personal growth, but also about love and relationships. There are 3 loves stories at work in the show: Kate Monster and Princeton, whose budding romance is crippled by Princeton’s self-indulgent claim that he can’t bother with a girlfriend until after he finds his purpose, though that doesn’t stop him from spending some *ahem* quality time with local songstress Lucy the Slut (Sasha Yearwood); Rod (Darin Kerr) and Nicky (Cody Gerszewski), the odd-couple pairing of a messy but lovable straight-but-not-narrow guy and his best friend, a deeply closeted Republican investment banker with a penchant for classic musicals; and Brian (Jordan Wolfe) and Christmas Eve (Maura Ferguson), the slightly older but just as down-on-their-luck neighbors whose multi-culti wedding ceremony has everyone thinking about what it means to find a lasting commitment. The mismatched group of friends, aided by not-so-sound advice from the Bad Idea Bears (Yearwood and Montgomery), sing and laugh their way through their trials and frustrations.
At first glance, the humor of Avenue Q is rather sophomoric and on the surface: vulgarity and dick jokes abound, and the complexities of race are watered down into a song and dance number where the cast and the audience are asked to acknowledge that “bigotry has never been exclusively white.” But that’s the thing: even if it seems like an easy joke, it makes a completely valid point. Racism is all around us, and for many it’s so ingrained into what we do, say, and think we don’t even notice it. And racism is much more complicated than some simple “white people versus all other kinds of people” problem. Under the laughter is a rather thought-provoking question: how do we navigate this ever-present racism and come out on the other side as decent human beings who can create authentic connections with one another. If you want to learn that lesson with a tear in your eye, you watch the movie Crash. If you want to learn it while laughing, you go see Avenue Q.
Another highlight of the show is the song “Schadenfreude,” a duet between Gary and Nicky after Rod kicks Nicky out of their apartment for outing him at Brian and Christmas Eve’s wedding. Nicky is living on the street after all of the other neighbors have turned him out as well, and Gary is getting just a little too much pleasure out of the whole situation. At first Nicky protests, but pretty soon the two are both laughing over all sorts of misfortunes: crashing figure skaters, people in the rain, and frat boys who will stick their dicks in just about anything after putting on the old beer goggles. And this number says a lot about our current popular culture. Let’s get real: no one is watching Teen Mom to see plucky youngsters facing a harsh and cruel world with dignity and chutzpah. When Britney Spears is shaving her head and beating up mini-vans with an umbrella or Amanda Bynes is attempting to light a dog on fire, the world is on the edge of its seat pouring over every gory detail; now that Britney is back to being a law-abiding citizen and probably-only-mediocre-but-at-least-nominally-functioning mom, who knows what she’s up to? And who the hell cares? We want train wrecks and tragedy, and tribes of Armenian hookers with less than a dozen brain cells between them.
Technically speaking, the show was an amazing success. This is exactly the kind of show that suits the Empire Arts Centre; some of the past ETC productions, most notably The Office Plays, were very well done but their smaller scale and minimal sets were dwarfed by the expansive classic proscenium and felt oddly out of place. The world of Avenue Q, however, fills the entire stage with visual and vocal stimulation and creates a world that fills the available space while still feeling as “intimate” (read: cramped) as a college graduate’s first big city apartment. There was also something special about the chemistry the cast had with each other – and with their puppets. I’ve heard the music to Avenue Q before, but this is the first time I’ve attended a live production, and I was interested in how seeing the actors onstage with their puppets would work. The cast did an amazing job of integrating their physical self with the puppet; obviously, it’s impossible to get away from the actor’s physical presence on stage, but it didn’t take long for me to see the actor as merely an extension of the puppet and I found myself scanning both the actor and the puppet, as though they were one cohesive unit.
The set was just enough like the familiar Sesame Street soundstage to evoke a little nostalgia while still presenting its own dilapidated charm, and the costumes were bright and fun. The puppets were all well-designed, though my one minor complaint is that Kate Monster’s fur really should be yellow (otherwise you lose the “Yellow Submarine” joke in the song “Mix Tape”); everyone handled them well, making them as expressive as felt can possibly be (Yearwood’s Lucy the Slut was especially memorable with her hair-flipping and breast-jiggling seduction of almost every male cast member). The music was also very well done under the strong direction of David Henrickson…and it was nice to see Matt Strand doing something productive with his time besides trying to ruin my dinner.**
Directed once again by ETC’s Creative Director Chris Berg, Avenue Q plays this weekend and next, and I suggest that everyone prepare themselves for a little naughty fun. It’s all good in this neighborhood, and this wacky cast of characters is ready to welcome you in with open arms…and raised middle fingers.
**That’s an inside joke that’s probably only funny to me. But it’s funny to me, so I included it. If you see me in person sometime, feel free to ask me about it!
Tags: Ave Q, Avenue Q, Bad Idea Bears, Brian, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Berg, Christmas Eve, Cody Gerszewski, Darin Kerr, David Henrickson, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theatre Company, Enpire Theatre Company, Evan Montgomery, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist, House of Champagne, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Kate Monster, Lavinia Thistletwat, Lori Boucher, Matt Strand, maura Ferguson, Mix Tape, Monster School, Natasha Thomas, Nicky, Princeton, Rod, Sasha Yearwood, Schadenfreude, Sesame Street, Steven Grand Douglas, Trekkie Monster, You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want