Avenue Q was originally conceived as a TV series; this reviewer, for one, is very happy that the decision was made to take the concept to Broadway.
Entering Milburn Stone Theatre on the campus of Cecil College in North East Maryland, our focus is directed to a linear set with high teasers. The bright colors and mixed shapes of Sesame Street combine with a slight grunge look and graffiti, transforming the playing area to something our inner child recognizes, however tentatively, and transporting the audience back to a time when puppets were uncomplicated and fun.
However, these AVENUE Q puppets have grown up—just like us! They are quirky, brash, selfish and—yes!—even raunchy! Instead of helping us deal with childhood issues like sibling rivalry or not getting our way, AVENUE Q friends cope with grownup issues, a.k.a. the Real World: finding a job, managing a new relationship and dealing with sexual proclivities!
Simple but compelling balconies expand use of the theatre space to above the floor, and minimize set piece changes to maximize action flow. For instance, director S. Lee Lewis finds a place onstage above the central playing space for the small musical ensemble. Mixing which favored the ensemble early in Act I, was smoothed out by mid-act and didn’t recur, so we could hear and understand all of the lyrics of this charming production.
Actors appear in three solo roles while everyone else is either a partial or dominant puppeteer. It was easy to be drawn to the puppets as speakers. The relationships between the “real” people and puppets played out with a nice sense of reality by Ryan Wagner (Brian), Kristin Sheehan (Christmas Eve), and Kashana Roberts (Gary Coleman). The actors work was nicely coordinated by Lewis, their director.
Costumes were basically utilitarian so as not to detract from the puppetry but this reviewer could not help but think about the wide-leg black slacks—maybe pleated; maybe not. Being uncomfortable watching a woman in a short, black skirt adjust the way she sat on low stairs while both hands were occupied with her puppet took me away from the scene and the more important things happening and being said on stage. Situations like this need to be sought out and fixed before they impact the production.
The imagination builds on our “suspension of disbelief” when we know something is there even when we cannot see it. We have to believe that the puppets are fully functional and any reality of “seeing” only half of them (and not their legs) mars that important mental image. Better usage of the available sheets (or how about an under the sheet dive?) would help during the crucial (and hilarious!) lovemaking scenes.
Kudos to Anthony Vitalo as musical director and to the great all-around singing. The talent which gathers at Milburn Stone is truly awesome and always supports the production score. Some actors, however, were playing emotional levels and instead of helping and allowing their creative vocality with the puppet to shine, they created some conflicts and so, as time went by, a concerted effort was needed to focus away from these well-intentioned but unnecessary efforts.
This is a witty, raucous, tender ensemble production; congratulations to Milburn Stone and its stage personnel. The puppeteers looked comfortable, the puppets were managed admirably, the actors were full of life and fun and a good time will be had by all who share an evening with these talented characters.
Just when you think it is safe to go back into the kids’ playroom and pick up that puppet, see AVENUE Q!!
Book by Jeff Whitty
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed By: S. Lee Lewis
October 26–November 4, 2012
Milburn Stone Theatre, on campus of Cecil College
One Seahawk Drive
North East, MD 21901