by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids – The musical Avenue Q twists an iconic American institution we all grew up with – Sesame Street’s puppets – and creates a decidedly adult show filled with laughter and song. Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of this 13 year old musical is well done, from the technical aspects to the performances. Unfortunately, some parts of the musical itself haven’t aged well.
The story centers around 20-somethings trying to figure out what to do with their lives. There is Princeton, a recent college grad; Kate Monster, a kindergarten teaching assistant and the object of Princeton’s affections; Trekkie Monster, who surfs the internet all day; Rod, the closeted gay tie wearing executive; and Nicky, his slacker roommate and best friend. These five characters are puppets, performed by actors that are not hidden in any way. The main human characters are Brian, an aspiring stand up comedian; his girlfriend, Christmas Eve, a Japanese caricature of a real person; and Gary Coleman, who actually is supposed to be Gary Coleman, the washed up actor from ’80s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. They all live on Avenue Q and what ties them together is the fact they’re all living sucky lives, which is wonderfully demonstrated in the song “It Sucks to Be Me,” a funny and powerful opening to the show, in which the cast demonstrated not just their excellent voices, but their comedic talents as well.
There is much to recommend this show. Aaron Murphy as Princeton and Laura “LB” Blythe as Kate Monster are delightful. Murphy and Blythe have strong voices, and are also excellent actors, though I did find myself watching them more than their puppets, which I am not certain was the intent of the show. In the opening scenes of the show, I was not sure where to look – was I supposed to focus on the puppets or the actors? In the end, for these two characters, I chose to focus on the actors most of the time as that’s where I saw the emotion play out most often.
In contrast, I found myself drawn to the puppet performance of Rod and Nicky, excellently manipulated by John Zbanek Hill and Adam Burnham. Both Zbanek Hill and Burnham focused their attention on the puppet they was manipulating, whereas both Murphy and Blythe would often play to the audience using their facial expressions to further the puppet’s personality. Both choices were effective in their own ways, but I wish the entire cast had chosen one way or the other.
This play is hilarious. I found myself laughing aloud many, many times as the actors expertly managed the many funny moments of this show. However, there’s a lack of depth to the show that I think is attributable to how things have changed over the past 13 years. One example is the story of Rod, the closeted gay puppet. In this age of marriage equality, the character’s fight against his true self seems outdated, which is not to say that this generation’s homosexuals don’t still struggle with coming to terms with their sexuality, but the way in which the story is presented in this musical feels outdated and at times uncomfortable.
Another problematic character is Gary Coleman. The actor upon which this character is based died in 2010, and he expressed his unhappiness with the character before he passed away. The character is described as the personification of one the themes of the show: that as children we are told we are special, but upon growing up, we find out we’re not. As someone who grew up in the 1980s and said many times, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”, I found it difficult to focus on the message of the character because I was distracted by my memories of the real life Coleman. I realize this may not have the same impact on those who don’t really remember Gary Coleman.
That said, the actor who portrays Coleman, Stephen Banks, is a wonderfully charismatic performer. In fact, there is not a weak performer among the cast. Daniel Kelchen as Trekkie Monster steals every scene he’s in with excellent comic timing. And I loved the Bad Idea Bears, performed by Emma Conroy and Erin Helm, who were cute and terrible all at the same time as they influenced Princeton and Kate Monster to make bad decisions.
The technical aspects were great. Lighting Designer Eric Burchett’s lights added color to the scenes, highlighting emotion without ever being overbearing. The scenic design (Daniel Kelchen again) was also effective. A two level set reminiscent of Sesame Street, with windows in the buildings in which the actors often appeared, was an excellent and simple use of the large stage. Director Leslie Charipar brought it all together to create an entertaining and fun show.
While I found some of the book of the show outdated and a little off, it could very well be that I’m taking it too seriously. Director Charipar warns us against doing just that in her director’s note, “There’s nothing terribly deep about the place, but it’s great fun to spend some time here… make sure you don’t take any of it too seriously.” On that level, Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Avenue Q is a whole lot of fun and I definitely had a good time. I think you will, too.