Sesame Street is one of the finest television programs in history, combining education and entertainment all wrapped up with a healthy collection of colorful puppets. In that show, humans and puppets interact to teach life lessons.
They say that parody is the ultimate sign of appreciation, and that’s exactly what the musical stage comedy Avenue Q does – with hilarious results.
Like its inspiration Sesame Street, Avenue Q takes place in a small neighborhood where puppets and humans live side by side. But instead of teaching kids how to spell and be nice to others, this show offers puppets getting drunk and having sex. If that sounds to you like one of the funniest concepts you’ve ever heard of, you’d be right.
MadKap Productions and producer Wendy Kaplan are presenting their brilliant mounting of Avenue Q through August 7 at the lovely and charismatic Skokie Theatre – conveniently accessible from the city of Chicago and from the outlining suburbs.
Featuring a small cast, in this mounting, four performers handle multiple puppet characters, while three actors perform in human roles. In some mountings of the show by other theater companies, a larger number of performers is used to cover all the puppet characters. However, MadKap’s casting mimics that of the original Broadway production and works just fine. It is a testament to the incredible talents of the ensemble.
The story is rather simple: Princeton (a young Muppet-like character) graduates from school and is ready to embrace life in the big city. Ultimately, he discovers his limited resources can only cover an apartment in a rundown neighborhood on the street Avenue Q. Once he has his apartment, he sets off to find his purpose in life.
Already living on Avenue Q are Kate Monster who longs to have a boyfriend, roommates Rod and Nicky who are clearly inspired by Sesame Steet’s Ernie and Bert, and Trekkie Monster – a Cookie Monster-like creature with a hilarious porn addiction. Also living in the tenement are three humans, including a fictionalized version of former television child star Gary Coleman.
Every single person on stage in the MadKap production of Avenue Q is brilliant in their own way. Leading the cast as Princeton and Bert-like Rod is Zach Moore in his first ever theatrical production. It is a magnificent performance.
Moore handles the voice work and puppeteering like a pro. He has an inherent honesty that transcends the characters. His acting, singing, and movement blend seamlessly with his puppeteering. In short, Moore turns in an astoundingly great performance on all levels.
As Kate Monster, Natalie Rae is divine. Kate is an assistant kindergarten teacher who dreams of running a school for monsters. She eventually becomes Princeton’s girlfriend.
Rae has an incredibly expressive face. Her expressions read all the way to the back of the beautiful Skokie Theatre. She also has a delightful singing voice that effortlessly dances through the music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx – who also conceived the show.
Rae also handles the characterization of Lucy the Slut who vies for Princeton’s affections. If you think the absurdity of a slutty puppet will make you giggle, you are right on the money. In fact, thanks to the superb book by Jeff Whitty and Rae’s impressive acting talents, you’ll be in absolute stitches.
Trekkie Monster is a crowd favorite. Like Cookie Monster, he is a hairy creature with googly eyes and an addiction – except instead of craving cookies, Trekkie’s passion is Internet porn. Rami Halabi is hysterical as Trekkie.
Halabi also brings the character of Nicky to life. Nicky is the Ernie of Avenue Q. The Nicky puppet even looks very similar to everyone’s favorite rubber duck loving Ernie. Appropriately, Halabi provides a voice and inflections comparable to those of the late Jim Henson.
Rounding out the cast of puppeteers is Heidi Hansfield. She and Halabi bring the Bad Idea Bears to life. Much like the Cat in the Hat, these fun-loving creatures promise excitement and adventure, but usually in ways that will end up hurting the friends they lure into their plans. Convincing people to get drunk at inopportune times is just one of the tricks of the Bad Idea Bears.
Hansfield also puppeteers Mrs. Thistletwat, Kate Monster’s boss at the kindergarten. Despite having less lines than the other puppeteers, Hansfield makes her mark. Her Bad Idea Bear is one of the funniest characters in the entire show – and it is a show filled with funny.
LIVE IN PERSON
The three people cohabitating with the puppets on Avenue Q are unemployed Brian, his Asian firecracker fiancé Christmas Eve, and former child star Gary Coleman who now works as the super for the Avenue Q tenement.
Brian, who wants to be a standup comedian but doesn’t know how to tell a joke, is hilariously played by Dennis Schnell. His unusually named fiancé Christmas Eve is played by Shea Lee who packs quiet a lot of talent in her diminutive frame.
While Sabrina Edwards doesn’t have much in common with the real Gary Coleman, once you commit to buying into the world of Avenue Q, you’ll appreciate her talents. Edwards is a very talented singer and dancer. The real Gary Coleman would have been lucky to have Edwards’ level of talent.
As wonderful as the cast of MadKap’s Avenue Q is, every show requires one captain to steer the ship. Ty Perry provides the direction and choreography for this production and does so with dizzying talent.
Music direction is done with excellence by Aaron Kaplan. The orchestra consists of Sachio Nang (keyboard/conductor), Wesley Dziedzic (keyboard), Paul Compton (guitar), Eric von Holst (bass), Maddi Vogel (drums), and Mary Spencer (flute/clarinet/alto sax).
BEHIND THE SCENES
The Skokie Theatre is an old movie house that has been converted into a live theater venue. As such it has a stage that is very deep but not terribly wide.
Every theater space is different. Part of the beauty of theater is seeing how the artistic and technical staff interpret a show to make best use of their theater’s space.
Scenic designer Molly Cornell has done a fantastic job fitting the necessary elements of the Avenue Q set onto the Skokie Theatre stage. Video elements are the work of Zach Rosing Productions, lighting design is by John Holmes, and sound design is by Kevin J. Mell.
Keeping the cast looking good is the job of costume designer David Lundholm. Arielle Raybuck handles properties design, and Kristoffer “Mr. Krist” Neumann is the man in charge of all things puppets.
Part of the unadulterated fun of Avenue Q is that nothing is off limits. The zany cast commits comedic assaults on such subjects as racism, homosexuality, alcohol abuse, one-night stands, and porn addiction. Stand out songs include “It Sucks to Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” and “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.”
Having won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book, Avenue Q is one of those shows that you can see over and over and always have a good time. So, even if you’ve seen Avenue Q at another theater, you’re still in for a delightful time at MadKap Productions’ mounting of the show at the Skokie Theatre.
The R-rated show includes adult topics, offensive language, and puppets having sex – so get a babysitter and leave the kids at home for this one.
If you are looking to fill your soul with laughter, make plans to see MadKap Productions’ Avenue Q at the Skokie Theatre. You’ll laugh so hard you’ll cry.
For the safety of patrons, a new state-of-the-art air filtration system has been installed at the theatre. All cast members, musicians, crew, and ushers are fully vaccinated.
Following Avenue Q, MadKap Productions has a stellar season planned that includes Falling for Make Believe, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, musical parody The Book of Merman, and Neil Simon’s Rumors.
The Skokie Theatre is located at 7924 Lincoln Avenue in downtown Skokie, just outside Chicago city limits. Performances are at 7:30 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 PM on Sundays. For tickets to this hilarious romp call the box office at (847) 677-7761 or visit www.SkokieTheatre.org.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
If you appreciate the nature of my words here, I ask that you take just a moment to share this article with your social media of choice. Follow me on Facebook (/rikki.travolta) and Twitter (@RikkiLeeTV)