A trip to North Shore Center for the Performing Arts to see Music Theater Works’ production of Avenue Q is not exactly a trip to the lighthearted, family fun of Sesame Street. Oh, Avenue Q is definitely a good time, and you will laugh uproariously, but it is not exactly family entertainment.
When I saw the film Team America: World Police, I nearly split my gut laughing when they showed marionettes having sex. The first time I saw Avenue Q with Muppet-like puppets having sex, obsessing about porn, and theorizing that everyone is a little bit racist, it again inspired hysterics. And although I’ve seen Avenue Q produced a few times now, these bits never get old.
Avenue Q tells the story of Princeton, a puppet who has recently graduated college. Unable to find any other accommodations in his price range, Princeton takes an apartment at a run-down building on Avenue Q. The other tenants include Kate Monster, Trekkie Monster, roommates Nicky and Rod, and couple Brian and his fiancé Christmas Eve. In a bit of comic brilliance, the building is managed by former child star Gary Coleman.
Directed and choreographed by Chris Pazdernik, Music Theater Works’ production is nicely paced, with well-developed characters. The biggest selling point, though, is the amazing vocal work under the mentorship of music director Eugene Dizon.
This mounting finds its stride with Princeton’s song Purpose. It is the first time Jimmy Hogan is able to really show off his powerful and expressive voice. He simply rocks the house. And he is not just a singer, his characterization throughout the show is pretty darn endearing.
Indeed, the cast overall has some great voices and really shine in group numbers. The way the cast blends on harmonies is at times almost religious.
Princeton’s love interest Kate Monster is played delightfully by Brandy Miller. Miller has such an animated face that her expressions that truly resonate with the audience. And what a voice! Let it be said, Brandy Miller’s vocal belt is legendary.
Andres J. DeLeon has an interesting acting challenge playing two of the musical’s main characters: Trekkie Monster who is a self-proclaimed porn addict who doesn’t venture out of the house much and Nicky a puppet in an Ernie and Bert roommate living situation who suspects his conservative buddy Rod might be gay.
DeLeon’s ability to jump from voice to voice is quite admirable. I loved his Trekkie Monster and his thoughts about how most everyone masturbates. His Nicky is just as fun, but in a much different way – showing off DeLeon’s ability to play multiple, distinctly different characters.
DeLeon and Melissa Crabtree share duties as the Bad Idea Bears, which are Care Bear-like friends who are the epitome of bad influences, encouraging laziness, freeloading, and lots of alcohol abuse as an alternative to things like looking for a job or paying bills.
Like DeLeon, Crabtree plays multiple characters including kindergarten teacher Mrs. Thistletwat and Girls Gone Wild veteran bed hopper Lucy the Slut. She too is a phenomenal singer and shows off some nice creativity in the voices she chooses to differentiate her characters.
Whereas Nicky is the Ernie, his roommate Rod is the Bert of their relationship. There has been a long running joke in day-to-day society that Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert might be gay. Therefore, in this parody Rod is portrayed as a very high-strung neurotic struggling with his sexuality. Adam Ross Brody is tearfully funny throughout, growing more and more so until he nearly climaxes in his embrace of his homosexuality at the close of the show.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Whitney Dottery is an absolute star as Gary Coleman. Her mugging and twinkle-eyed smile is the perfect tribute to the late child actor. Different Strokes fans will be thrilled with the accuracy of Dottery’s magnificent performance.
Dottery is not just a one trick pony. She has one of the most dynamic voices in a cast filled with great voices and she knows how to connect with the audience too. Her delivery on You Can be as Loud as the Hell you Want (When You’re Making Love) is as good as being at a Tina Turner concert.
Part of the charm of Sesame Street is the way Muppets and humans interact. That comedic fodder was not lost on Jeff Whitty who wrote the book for Avenue Q based on the original concept by the show’s composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.
Also living in the tenement with Princeton and his friends are Christmas Eve and her bumbling, unemployed man Brian.
Christmas is perhaps the world’s worst therapist. She offers terrible advice, then wonders if the reason she doesn’t have returning clients is that she’s so good she cures everyone with one visit.
IT’S ALWAYS CHRISTMAS TIME
Mai Hartwich is very enjoyable as Christmas Eve. She is clearly having fun in the role and her delivery on the song The More You Ruv Someone is incredible.
Thomas E. Squires plays Christmas’s love interest Brian, a terribly unfunny would-be standup comedian. Demonstrating how looks can make or unmake the man, Squires embodies the dumpiness needed to play the part.
When Christmas and Brian decide to tie the knot, the Jewish ceremony presided over by Gary Coleman is downright hilarious.
The Avenue Q production starts off with a pre-show greeting from Joe Keefe, the director of development for Music Theater Works. His warm bubbly personality and the way he makes the audience feel like they are a part of something special is always the perfect way to get in the mood for a night of fabulous entertainment.
To that end, Music Theater Works has some brilliant fundraising options in the lobby to consider before the show or at intermission. And during The Money Song in Act II, the cast does take the opportunity to pass the hat collecting for Season of Concern, which is a charity I endorse and have raised money for myself. Come prepared to be generous if the spirit moves you.
Avenue Q relies on not just the vocal and acting skills of its cast, but also their ability to work puppets while doing it. Kudos to puppetry trainer Kristi Martens and assistant puppetry trainer Andrew Lund, by the dexterity of the performers these trainers have done their job well.
Scenic design is handled well by Ben Lipinski and costumer Justin LeBanc impresses with a wedding dress adorned with Christmas tree lights. Lighting design is by Andrew Meyers, sound design is by Rick Sims, and properties are by Bob Silton and MaK Cole.
As a part of its parody of children’s programming like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, Music Theater Works’ Avenue Q features animated segments played on video screens on either side of the stage. Media designer David Sajewich and media engineer Tony Churchill do an excellent job with these visuals, essentially adding a non-sentient but really funny element to the show.
Run time with intermission is approximately 2 hours. The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM. There are also some select Thursday performances.
For ticket information visit www.MusicTheaterWorks.com or call the box office at (847) 673-6300.
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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