Thursday, January 5, 2017

"Avenue Q"

Avenue Q
Robert Lopez Y Jeff Marx (Music & Lyrics); Jeff Whitty (Book)
New Conservatory Theatre Center

The 2017 "Purple" Cast of Avenue Q
Ed Decker, Artistic Director of New Conservatory Theatre Center, begins his program introduction with “It’s the final, final, final ‘Furwell’ tour of Avenue Q, now in its fourth year of the company’s holiday productions.  However, one has to wonder looking around at the sold-out audience on the Wednesday night after New Years (usually a totally dead time for theatre) if come December 2017 there will not be great temptation to make Avenue Q NCTC’s version of Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol.  Clearly, NCTC’s returning patrons and newcomers are having a love affair with Avenue Q and the company’s year-in, year-out hilarious, high-energy, and heart-warming production. 

All it takes is a few minutes into the musical’s opening “Avenue Q Theme” to understand why the musical is such a perennial hit, here and across the entire globe -- 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 young, urban 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.  (And those catchy-tuned “ear worms” just keep replaying all night in one’s dreams with lyrics like “everyone’s a little bit racist,” “if your were gay ... but I’m not gay,” and “I’m not wearing underwear today.”)

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.  (Do Millennials have any idea who Gary Coleman is?) 

On the other hand, these apartment-house dwellers are the first to admit 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 as gay is the only option, and/or to realize at one time or another, “It Sucks to Be Me.”  On this street of friends and neighbors, 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.

So popular has Avenue Q become for NCTC, this fourth generation of the show features two casts:  one labeled “Purple” (playing Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sunday matinees) and one, “Orange” (playing Thursdays through Saturdays).  This review features the Purple cast. 

The first thing evident as the cast begins to appear one by one on the stage is their multi-colored, human and non-human appearances and their squeaky, gravely, bull-throated, and nasally voices that are almost -- but not quite exactly -- as we remember from our Sesame Street days.  What is also evident is what outstanding direction Dennis Lickteig is for the fourth year in a row providing this year’s Avenue Q,  Under his leadership, humans and puppets intermingle, intertwine, and intermix their features, bodies, voices, and energies in such amazingly orchestrated manners as to humor, surprise, awe, and delight the audience almost every minute of the entire two-act show.  He is greatly aided once again by the sometimes simple, often clever, and always amusing choreography of Rory Davis where puppet’s hands, actors/puppets heads, big-mouthed boxes, and even actual people sway, swing, and step to the toe-tapping music played on keyboards and directed so well by Music Director Matthew Lee Cannon (along with bassist Amanda Wu and percussionist Tim Vaughn).  The puppets themselves -- with actors often interchanging roles and hand manipulations --are directed in movement and creativity by veterans William Giammona and Chris Morrell.

Once again this year, 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).

Among this “Purple” cast is a range of abilities to sing their parts with full surety and total understanding, with some members having occasional trouble being always understood all the way to the back row of the Decker Theatre.  However, to a person, each cast member sells the part(s) assigned with gusto, grin, and gut if not always by un-miked vocals. 

Kyle Stoner & Brendon North
Best friends and roommates Nicky and Rod (voiced and manipulated by Brendon North and Kyle Stoner, respectively) have many of the quirks and qualities of Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert; and each talks and sings in voices that ring truth to the originals (Nicky with a froggy and guttural “aw-shucks” voice and Rod with a back-of-the-throat, boyish sound).  Brendon North also lets his arms become those of Trekkie Monster (close cousin to a certain garbage-can-dwelling hairball of Sesame Street Land), often showing his blonde, totally handsome face singing next to Trekki’s, green, oversized head of fur.  His gutturals that are part of Nicky’s vocals become even rougher as they sound off with gritty gusto in “The Internet Is for Porn” and with full heart in “School for Monsters.” 

Kyle Stoner also takes on the second puppet role of Princeton, who in light and truly angelic tones searches with a sense of optimism for his “Purpose” while accompanied by six lid-flapping boxes.  He finds the search for his life’s prime calling suddenly getting side-tracked by a growing, lust-filled attraction to a certain, cute Kate Monster, superbly manipulated and sung by Audrey Baker, who proves time and again to be the evening’s star performer.  Her speaking and singing voice shows a wide range of possibilities that sometimes reminds one of a cartoon and other times, of a Broadway diva. 

Audrey Baker & Monica Lo
Ms. Baker particularly shines in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” where she nicely underplays her contemplative approach to the opening “There’s a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend ... reality and pretend” and then slowly increases intensity and tension to “but there’s fine, fine line between love and a waste of your time.”  She impressively builds and backs off and builds again to sell the message, “And there’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.”  When Ms. Baker returns at several points as the other, momentary love attraction of Princeton -- the slutty, big-bosomed nightclub singer Lucy – she tempts and taunts with surety and surliness “Special” as she lures Princeton into a one-night stand.

Playing actual humans are soon-to-be newly weds, Brian (Scott DiLorenzo) and Christmas Eve (Monica Ho).  Brian looks like an over-grown boy in his orange, baggy shorts, red tennies, and purple tee barely covering his pleasantly protruding tummy.  He is an aspiring stand-up comedian who often forgets the punch line to his created jokes but who does prod a depressed Princeton into a night on the town with a lively sung “There is Life Outside Your Apartment.”  Christmas Eve’s heavily accented Japanese character brings a lot of humor to her spoken and sung sequences but here and there unfortunately loses a few words as the accent goes a bit too far afield.  Vanessa Vaccianna has exactly the correct leg-protruded pose to remind everyone of her apartment-managing Gary Coleman from 1980s TV but could use a mike to help project better her otherwise fine and fun vocals in such numbers as “You Can Be As Loud As You Want To (When You’re Making Love” and “Shadenfreude.” 

Juliana Lustenader, Vanessa Vaccianna & Brendon North
Finally, particular kudos goes to Juliana Lustenader and Brendon North as they become two hilarious Bad Idea Bears (in contrast to their Care Bear relations).  They fly in with high, squeaky voices and temptations galore to convince Princeton, Kate, and others to do all the things they know they should not do.

There is no doubt as audience members quickly rise to their feet at the end of the finale “For Now” (i.e., “Everything in life is only for now”) that their votes are for a long, continued life on Avenue Q.  New Conservatory Theatre Center once again has produced a winner; and there is no sign in the rainy, cold days of January 2017 that there is anything but a hot, fun time being had by all in attendance.

Rating: 4 E

Avenue Q continues through January 22, 2017 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.

Photos by Lois Tema

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