Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Avenue Q"

Avenue Q
Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx (Music, Lyrics & Original Concept)
Jeff Whitty (Book)

The Cast of "Avenue Q"
What does it mean when the same theatre company brings back the same musical three years in a row – one that is still selling out each night -- and is extending the run yet again?  What it means is that New Conservatory Theatre Center’s patrons are having a love affair with Avenue Q and NCTC’s year-in, year-out hilarious, high-energy, and heart-warming production.  The popularity of this 2004 multi-Tony winning musical also continues in New York (where it has been Off-Broadway since 2009) and across the land.  All it takes is a few minutes into the musical to understand why -- even when seeing it for the second, third, or whatever time.  Jeff Whitty’s book (based on an original concept of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) opens up in clever ways the universal experiences of urban young adults just out of college who find that living on their own while juggling job hunts, rents, annoying apartment mates, and first loves is not as easy as it looked when they were kids at home with their parents (watching Sesame Street).  Coupled with catchy, easily remembered tunes that often resemble those of childhood TV but whose no-holes-barred, often X-rated lyrics are nothing like what Bert and Ernie would have ever sung (masterfully created also by Lopez and Marx), Avenue Q is a clever musical that in fact can be seen again and again in the same ways another generation repeated their attendance at Lerner and Lowe or Rogers and Hammerstein classics.

The world of this garbage-bagged avenue somewhere in the depths of New York City (where recent grads arrive wondering “What Do You Do with a BA in English?”) is one full of diversity of every imaginable sort -- where being different is an accepted way of life.  Humans of all shapes and ethnicities, puppets of every color, and hairy monsters hang out as neighbors, date among themselves, and even inter-marry; and no one seems to care or really notice.  This is a world where being gay, straight, or even former TV child-star Gary Coleman in a woman’s body is A-OK.  On the other hand, these apartment-house dwellers are the first to admit in song to each other, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” including all of them.  Avenue Q presents a slice-of-life look of what it is like to fall in love with someone who may not yet be ready to settle down with you, to lose a job and wind up on the streets, to live in the closet until the door is so open that coming out is the only option, and/or to realize at one time or another, “It Sucks to Be Me.”  On the street, one will find hot sex between naked puppets, neighbors laughing at others’ (and their own) misfortunes, and almost everyone searching the Internet for porn – all a part of a normal, any day on Avenue Q.  But in this peek into everyday life, there is also genuine caring for one’s neighbors and friends, helping others find and obtain their true purposes in life, and deep understanding what community can really mean.  And on Avenue Q, this is all accomplished with equal doses of sass, silliness, and sincerity.

Casting geniuses Stephanie Desnoyers, Lori Fowler, and Ben Randle along with puppet designer Travis Howse have assembled an outstanding cast whose multi-colored human and non-human appearances and squeaky, gravely, bull-throated, and nasally voices are almost, but not quite exactly, as we remember from our Sesame Street days.  In baggy overalls and tilted baseball cap and with a sauntering walk that is just a bit cocky, Sam Jackson plays apartment manager Gary Coleman and particularly shines as she sings, “When I see how sad you are, it sorta makes me happy” (in “Schadenfreude”).  Best friends and roommates Nicky and Rod (voiced and manipulated by Chris Morrell and William Giammona) have many of the quirks and qualities of Ernie and Bert; and each talk and sing in voices that ring truth to the originals.  Chris Morrell also lets his arms become those of Trekkie Monster (close cousin to a garbage-can-dwelling hairball of Sesame Land).  His guttural, rough voice sounds off with gritty gusto in “The Internet Is for Porn” and with full heart in “School for Monsters.”  William Giammona also takes on the second puppet role of Princeton, who in a clear, sweet-voice is looking for his “Purpose” while accompanied by six lid-flapping boxes.  He is also finding the search for his life’s calling getting side-tracked by a growing attraction to a certain, cute Kate Monster, aided by her puppet master Teresa Attridge, who reigns supreme in numbers like “It’s a Fine, Fine Line.”  When she doubles as the other, momentary love attraction of Princeton -- the slutty, big-bosomed nightclub singer Lucy – Ms. Attridge’s puppeteering and singing are showstoppers in “Special.”

This fine ensemble is further enhanced by actual human beings and soon to be newly weds, Brian (Gary Walker) and Christmas Eve (Pamela Sevilla).  Brian is an aspiring stand-up comedian who prods a depressed Princeton into a night on the town with “There is Life Outside Your Apartment.”  Ms. Sevilla is delightful in her heavy Chinese accent (that sometimes crosses comically into a Southern US drawl) as she brings great humor into many spoken and sung sequences.  She also knocks out of the ballpark her duet with Kate in “The More you Ruv Someone,” moving from caricatured vocals into a cabaret voice that belts a sustained tone as clear as any bell.
Playing also multiple roles, Erin Ashe is particularly funny helping two Bad Idea Bears (in contrast to their Care Bear relations) come to life as they tempt Princeton, Kate, and others to do all the things they know they should not do.

Kuo-Hao Lo has created a street of two-storied, bricked brownstones drawn in childlike simplicity that immediately recalls the world of Cookie Monster and Big Bird, with windows that open to hiding rooms and basement grills that pull out to be beds.  Wes Crain has outfitted humans, puppets, and monsters with cartoon-bright stripes, patterns, and solids as appropriate (with voicing puppet handlers in all black).  Directed by Dennis Lickteig and accompanied by Christian V. Mejia’s lighting, James Ard’s sound, Robert Lopez’s TV animation, and Ben Prince’s musical direction of singers and three-piece orchestra, this New Conservatory production of Avenue Q has all it needs to be totally memorable and absolutely worthy of many, multi-year revivals.

Rating: 5 E

Avenue Q continues through December 31, 2015 in an extended run on the Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

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