Avenue Q may be right up your alley
Theatre review by John Busbee
March 23, 2010 "Avenue Q" is currently touring the upper Midwest, and Tuesday exploded on the CY Stephens stage in a rip-roaring romp of stellar talent, before wending its irreverent way for a three-day stop in Cedar Rapids. This production gets an "A" for exceptional showmanship, brilliant ensemble work and an uninhibited exploration of urban life's underbelly. "Avenue Q" is not for the faint of heart, as it is often explicit in its content and actions - where it earns an "R." It rips the cute fur right off of any cuddly Sesame Street memories, and exposes the world through unfiltered lenses - which gives it a "T" for tempestuous. And, that spells "A-R-T," of which this production achieves a rare form. It's Pollyanna drinking and cursing her way through Aunt Polly's house of ill repute. On the other hand, I've never had more sheer fun and admiration for performers at work than with this show.
This brilliant and unique musical is based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who created the music and lyrics. Jeff Witty wrote the book. After a highly praised, multiply extended run Off-Broadway, "Avenue Q" opened on Broadway in 2003, and hit the 2004 Emmy Awards trifecta: Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. After a 2534 performance run on Broadway, this show began touring, carrying its infectious, quirky humor to the world.
This is the story of Princeton, a bright-eyed college grad who responds to the lure of New York City with big dreams and a small bank account. Beginning at the unaffordable end of the alphabet where Avenue A apartments cost too much, he finally descends to a neighborhood in his price range: Avenue Q. The folks in the neighborhood seem nice enough to the naïve Princeton, and the ensuing story revolves around a fast-paced, microcosmic look at each friend's struggle to find jobs, mates and the purpose of life. Which means this story quickly spins into a smudged struggle for survival, sexuality and insecurities.
Brent Michael DiRoma, alternately as Princeton and Rod, displays a masterful command of the stage, presenting two clearly distinct characters through a puppet mastery that is shared by all in the cast. DiRoma's crystal voice dances effortlessly through the show, beginning with the chuckle-inducing "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" quickly followed by the one-upping, self-deprecation ensemble competition, "It Sucks to Be Me." DiRoma is powerfully matched by the brilliant Jacqueline Grabois, who plays Princeton's love interest, Kate Monster, and her interestingly antagonistic counterpart, Lucy the Slut. Grabois' voice alternately soars, then tugs, at the listener's heart and humor strings as she shines throughout her incredibly diverse performances. Grabois unbelievably pulls many empathetic responses from the audience in several touching scenes, most notably in her "There's a Fine, Fine Line."
Michael Liscio, Jr., doing a stellar job filling in as the understudy, quickly endears himself through his alter-egos, Nicky, Trekkie Monster and half of a Bear duo that makes the iconic devil-on-the-shoulder conscience seem Casper Milquetoast-ish tame. With an awe-inspiring vocal dexterity, Liscio deftly rides the roller coaster waves of comedic delight and turmoil his characters embody. Lisa Helmi Johanson, as Christmas Eve, plays the fiancée of the affably inept, out-of-work comedian, Brian, played convincingly by Tim Kornblum. Johanson flexes her incredible skills during her comic delivery, then belts some deliciously powerful vocals in "The More You Ruv Someone," a super duet with Grabois. As Gary Coleman (yes, the Gary Coleman), Nigel Jamaal Clark gives the role an impish strength that delves into the rib-tickling irony of Gary Coleman as the building's super. When Kerri Bracken pairs with Liscio as the other half of the Bear duo, the resultant calamity caused by these temptation sirens is great fun to behold.
An audience favorite is "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist," as this ensemble number exposes each for their own discriminatory foibles. The lyrics "bigotry has never been exclusively white" become another of many lesson-dealing moments throughout the show, adding an extra layer of relevance to "Avenue Q." Another stomping fun journey in rib-tickling absurdity is the group number, "The Internet Is for Porn," perversely and appealingly led by Liscio as Trekkie Monster.
Add to this sheer talent each puppet manipulator's instinctive and precise work with their puppets, and you have a marvel of a performance arts experience. Each human-teamed puppet quickly blends into one entity, forging a new kind of stage performer guaranteed to thoroughly delight. All in all, this is a fabulously wrought package of gifted performers with novel puppets working their harmonic precision to perfection. This tightly knit septet of actors gives the impression of a massive ensemble as they work their comedic magic through a marvelously crafted production.
Set designer Anna Louizos and lighting designer Howell Binkley team to create an incredibly flexible, appealing aberration of the Street we first learned to love as kids. Rick Lyon's puppets are unbelievably effective fusions with each actor.
If your theatrical tendency is adventurous and if you witnessed the emergence and growth of Sesame Street, you will be particularly drawn to this show. However, this show will appeal to anyone who isn't mired in prudish tendencies. Mature teens, while adults may think are under-aged, will probably find this show incredibly cool. Those who immerse themselves in the raw hilarity of Q's wittiness and ribald antics will be rewarded with an incredible Broadway show experience in the Heartland. When "Avenue Q" runs close by, turn down this street to one of the absolute top show destinations being produced.