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Uproarious, but raunchy, Broadway Series South’s 2007-08 series-ending presentation of Avenue Q is not a typical puppet-people musical. Based on an ingenious original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, this multiple Tony Award-winning musical comedy is like an extreme episode of MTV’s “Real World” series set in a section of New York City so seedy that a change of address to Hell’s Kitchen is considered a step up.
Avenue Q has a unique parental advisory: “Due to adult situations (like full-puppet nudity), Avenue Q may not be appropriate for kids under 13. Parental guidance is suggested.” But this award-winning show, which won the 2004 Tony Award trifecta for Best Musical, Best Original Score (Lopez and Marx), and Best Book of a Musical (Jeff Whitty), really does contain a scene in which a couple of naked puppets bring the house down by making like minks in heat. Moreover, Avenue Q drops the S-bomb and especially the F-bomb with enough frequency to earn the live-theater equivalent of an R rating on language alone.
That said, Avenue Q still has a lot to recommend it. But, first, my own parental advisory: “Parents leave your younger children at home and don’t go to this show with your older children. Children don’t go to Avenue Q with your parents. Go separately — and laugh your, er, head off.”
Musical highlights include knee-slapping production numbers of “It Sucks to Be Me”; “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”; “The Internet Is for Porn”; and “Schadenfreude,” in which the whole motley crew that inhabits the tenements of Avenue Q positively wallows in the misfortunes of others.
Produced by Kevin McCollum, Robyn Goodman, Jeffrey Seller, Vineyard Theatre, and The New Group, the current national tour of Avenue Q is a riotous post-graduate coming-of-age story, starring a fresh-faced recent college grad named Princeton (Robert McClure), who arrives in the Big Apple clueless of how hard it is to make it there — or make it anywhere. He finds a ramshackle apartment in the low-rent section of Avenue Q, where the building's preternaturally cheerful and more than a little bit creepy superintendent is former child star Gary Coleman (Carla Renata) of “Diff’rent Strokes” fame and not much else after age 15.
Princeton’s quirky fellow tenants and neighbors include sensitive, sweet, and hopelessly naïve novice kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer); phlegmatic plus-size would-be comedian Brian (Cole Porter) and his acid-tongued psychotherapist fiancée Christmas Eve (Angela Ai); goofy good-hearted slacker Nicky (Cullen R. Titmas) and his uptight and deeply closeted-homosexual Republican investment banker roommate Rod (McClure); and a wild and wooly Internet porn addict named Trekkie Monster (Titmas). Other colorful characters in their disintegrating orbit include sleazy saloon singer Lucy the Slut (Sawyer); the mischievous and frequently malicious Bad Idea Bears (Titmas and Minglie Chen), who tempt Princeton and Kate to choose the worst possible alternative in any given situation; and Kate Monster’s grouchy boss, elderly kindergarten teacher Mrs. Thistle**** (Chen), the final syllable of whose surname cannot and will not be repeated in this newsletter. An energetic ensemble, which includes Maggie Lakis, Seth Rettberg, and Danielle K. Thomas, also adds pizzazz to this spirited production.
Kelli Sawyer and Robert McClure are hilarious as Kate, whose Monster surname makes her a target of unspecified racial and/or ethnic slurs, and Princeton, who is certainly not the brightest bulb in this benighted neighborhood. McClure’s delightful dithering as Rod — over whether to be or not to be openly gay — and Sawyer’s wanton antics as Lucy are comic highlights of the show. Cole Porter’s lacksidasical portrayal of the sad-sack Brian needs more oomph; but Angela Ai is a scream as Christmas Eve, whose prickly know-it-all personality and fortune-cookie accent is a priceless parody of Asian stereotypes.
Cullen Titmas is also very funny as Nicky the space cadet and as rude and crude Trekkie Monster, whose appetite for online porn is truly insatiable. Minglie Chen and Titmas also score big laughs in their cheeky cameo roles as the evil Bad Idea Bears; and Maggie Lakis, Seth Rettberg, and Danielle Thomas make the most of their brief moments in the spotlight.
The exuberant musical staging of director Jason Moore and choreographer Ken Roberson puts a spring in every performer’s step. Puppet designer Rick Lyon has done a masterful job of creating puppet alter egos for the doubly talented actor/puppeteers, scenic designer Anna Louizos has made the squalor of Avenue Q into a jewel of a set that opens up like a popup book, and costume designer Mirena Rada has created a wickedly funny wardrobe for the vividly drawn characters in this irreverent spoof of “Sesame Street” and other saccharine children’s shows that look at urban life through rose-colored glasses.
Musical supervisor Stephen Oremus and lighting designer Howell Binkley also help make Avenue Q memorable. But Acme Sound Partners’ sound design needs a lot of fine-tuning, so that the hot licks of the Avenue Q Band, led by conductor Andrew Graham on keyboards, don’t drown out so many of the show’s lacerating lyrics.
Broadway Series South presents Avenue Q Thursday-Friday, May 8-9, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 10, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 11, at 2 and 7 p.m. at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $21-$68, except $25 Special Discount Tickets (see below for details). Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919/831-6060 or through the presenter's website. Special Discount Tickets: At every performance, a limited number of Orchestra seats will be available at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium Box Office for $25 each, cash only, with a two-ticket limit per person, starting one hour before showtime (see http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/ for details). Group Rates (for parties of 20 or more): 919/857-4565. The Broadway Show: http://www.avenueq.com/broadway/se2.htm [inactive 9/09] (official web site) and http://ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=11189 (Internet Broadway Database). The Tour: http://www.avenueq.com/tour/ [inactive 9/09].