Saturday, June 4, 2016

Avenue Q at Lakewood Playhouse

Manners en brochette
by Michael Dresdner

L to r: Crawford, Trekkie Monster, Hall    All photos by Tim Johnston 
 Avenue Q, which opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse, is an in-your-face, irreverent, bawdy assault on a host of issues “polite” America usually avoids, done in the form of a musical.

It manages to carom off topics like sex, masturbation, nascent racism, internet porn, schadenfreude, homelessness, homophobia, and the relative uselessness of the college educated middle class (at whom it is largely directed) by having the normally unspeakable voiced by puppets, or more specifically, Muppets. That, it seems, makes it both funny and palatable, though it was clearly written to tweak the noses of the politically correct, the religious mid-West, and those who still read Miss Manners. In other words, the complacent, white middle class.      

Front: Lazaroo, Williams, Davis. Behind: Brown, Hall, Sinclair, Crawford
To be fair, it is very funny, quite well written, and fiendishly clever. Victoria Webb directed a highly talented collection of actors and puppeteers with brio, resulting in a fast-paced, compelling performance.

Along with the Muppets are three “human” actors. Brian (Connor Brown) is a somewhat directionless Jewish nebbish who lives with his tough, pushy, Asian girlfriend named Christmas Eve (JasminRae Onggao Lazaroo). Their landlord at the seedy apartment on Avenue Q is Gary Coleman (Tony L. Williams.) Yes, that Gary Coleman, the African-American actor made famous by the TV show Diff’rent Strokes whose somewhat troubled life is mocked in the play’s song “It Sucks to be Me.” The real Coleman died in 2010, but not before publicly stating he wanted to sue Avenue Q for their portrayal of him.

L to r: Lazaroo, Williams, Brown
 The three humans interact seamlessly with a host of Muppets with very real and specific personalities brought to life by the extraordinary puppeteers Kyle Sinclair, Taylor Davis, Derek Hall, and Kayla Crawford. The conceit is that although we see them on stage, their Muppet actions and expressions, often mimicked by these puppet masters, are strong enough to make us relate to the Muppets and not the humans behind them. For the most part, they quite succeed at that.

L to r: Sinclair, Hall, Crawford
All in all, the acting and puppet work was excellent, and the singing, especially on ensemble numbers, was also very good, though all of them, with the thankful exception of Derek Hall, could have benefited from a bit more vocal power, especially on some of the songs.

L to r: Muppet Kate, Davis, Muppet Rod, Sinclair 
There’s a rather thin plot which mostly serves to introduce the various topics the musical chooses to lampoon. Princeton, newly graduated with a BA in English, can only afford lodgings on seedy Avenue Q, where in addition to the humans he meets mousy, lovelorn kindergarten teacher Kate Monster, her boss Mrs. Thistletwat, closet homosexual Rod and his hapless roommate Nicky, sexpot Lucy, internet porn addicted Trekkie Monster, and a brace of devil-on-your-shoulder advice givers called, appropriately, the Bad Idea Bears, who promote sex, booze, and even suicide. There’s even a gaggle of animated singing cardboard boxes. Along the way the characters, human and Muppet, reveal their biases, find love, sex, work, disappointment, failure, and sometimes even rewards.

The Bad Idea Bears 
Many of the songs are well described by their titles alone. They include Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, The Internet is for Porn, What Do You Do With a BA in English?, Schadenfreude, about the pleasure we get from seeing others in distress, and If You Were Gay, a nod to incipient homophobia which was more cleverly covered a decade earlier by Seinfeld’s famous “not that there’s anything wrong with that” episode, The Outing.

As for the production support, it was awesome. The cleverly repainted and repurposed Noises Off set (Larry Haggerman, Dylan Twiner, Carrie Foster, Ana Bury), worked beautifully, as did wide ranging lighting design (Brett Carr) and sound design (Nena Curley). Props (Karrie Nevin) and costumes (Stephanie Huber) held up their end just as well, and the puppet instructor (Lance Woolen) deserves a special bow. So, too, does the outstanding orchestra (LaMont Aitkinson, Bruce Carpenter, David Close, Joseph Ralston, Greg Smith, Dexter Stevens, Lauren Trew, Jesika Westbrook) under the direction of Josh Zimmerman.

Yes, this was an outstanding production, but…

Ok, this is where this review is going to get a bit excoriating, so if you’d rather avert your eyes and skip to the end, I’ll completely understand.

You see, the problem with Avenue Q is that it has become, at least in this area, a bit dated. Here in the PNW, where we have legal pot, marriage equality, Dan Savage, and on the down side, recently increasing homelessness, many of these once taboo topics are no longer appropriate objects of avoidance and titillation. Perhaps this is still thrillingly outré in Peoria, but much of coastal society has moved on.

Granted, the musical debuted on Broadway in 2003, back in the heyday of the first Dubya administration and much has changed. Being awkward and clueless about homophobia is no longer cute, and homelessness has never been funny. Nor are saying “masturbation” and having an awareness of internet porn so unspeakable.

On the other hand, we haven’t moved ahead at all on racism, and the plight of the unemployed over-educated is not much better either. Still, the musical is clearly from the viewpoint of the young, college educated white middle class, and its humor would no doubt fall flat on the ears of many of those it mocks.

And we’re back…

As I was saying, this is a very well-produced, directed, and acted musical with a unique and clever style. My guess is that you will enjoy it (as did the opening night audience) though there are certainly segments that will, perhaps quite intentionally, make some folks decidedly uneasy.

Avenue Q
June 3 to July 3, 2016
Lakewood Playhouse

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