If The Muppets grew up and fell in with a vulgar, inappropriate, hilarious group of ruffians, the result would likely be AVENUE Q, the long-running Broadway hit conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. This show is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. However, for those among us with a thick skin and an appreciation for all levels of humor, it’s easy to see why AVENUE Q won three Tonys in 2003, including Best Musical. Maurer Productions OnStage took a huge risk putting this show on at the Kelsey Theatre, but with their talent and gusto, it’s a gamble that pays off in spades.
The show’s plot was woven around the songs – and it’s an accomplishment that the writers of the book were able to connect such songs as “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” with “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love).” The audience first meets Princeton (Zach Mazouat), a recent college graduate, as he moves into the cheapest apartment he can find, obviously, on Avenue Q. He forms a little family with his neighbors, the sexually-crazed Trekkie Monster (Michael Schiumo, with puppetry help from William Mercado), engaged couple Brian (Mike Sundburg) and Christmas Eve (Stephanie Moon), and roommates Nicky (Kyrus Keenan Westcott, with puppetry help from E. Nicole Spadafino) and Rod (Mark Applegate), plus the superintendent of Avenue Q, Gary Coleman (Shannan Gonzalez).
Along the way, Princeton loses his job and falls victim to the Bad Idea Bears (E. Nicole Spadafino and William Mercado, who play several smaller roles) who convince him to blow through his money, drink too much, canoodle with strippers, and ruin his relationships. This includes his on-and-off girlfriend Kate Monster (Kyla Mostello Donnelly), a do-gooder monster who just wants to teach at her very own monster school.
This is a difficult show to perform: the only fully human characters in the show are Brian, Christmas Eve, and Gary Coleman, and many of the puppets take two people to operate. This cast, however, takes these challenges and handles them deftly. As the leading man, Zach Mazouat is endearing without being sappy, and he somehow makes the hapless puppet Princeton funny and relatable. Kyla Mostello Donnelly encourages similar feelings about the ultimately adorable Kate Monster. She and Mazouat are never better than during the full nudity puppet sex scene, narrated by Gary Coleman in song. Both actors throw themselves into the simulated sex and the result is hilarious. Their clear, strong voices do the songs justice, although Donnelly had some issues with the show’s one ballad, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.”
The rest of the cast was equally excellent. The best on-stage chemistry was between Kyrus Keenan Westcott and Mark Applegate as Nicky and Rod, respectively. Westcott and his puppet partner William Mercado move seamlessly, and his goofy character voice for Nicky is unwaveringly perfect. Applegate’s nasally, sexually confused Rod was just as great, complete with withering glares and head tilts pointed towards his ridiculous roommate. Michael Schiumo has the best character voice in the cast as Trekkie Monster, and his no-holds-barred performance in “The Internet Is For Porn” had the audience, deservedly, in peals of laughter. Shannan Gonzalez is wonderfully ludicrous as Gary Coleman, parodying the late actor skillfully, and her human compatriots Michael Sundburg and Stephanie Moon were entertainingly cartoonish as Brian and Christmas Eve, although Moon’s accent was distractingly inconsistent. The unsung heroes of the show were E. Nicole Spadafino and William Mercado, who played all the ensemble parts with equal passion. Although they were fantastic in all these roles, and best as a duo as the high-pitched Bad Idea Bears, Spadafino’s top moment was as the stripper Lucy The Slut, and Mercado shone as Kate Monster’s chain-smoking boss Mrs. Thistletwat.
On the technical side, there were minor problems which were hopefully attributable to opening night
missteps. The set changes were awkward without music, and cues for the orchestra and video screens seemed a step behind. Additionally, there was chatter in the booth and a moment during Act I where the lights turned on, both of which were a distraction for those of us in the upper sections. However, the set was cute and functional, and the puppet design was incredibly detailed and well-executed, right down to the costume changes and naked puppets. A comment from an audience member at intermission summed up the show better than a reviewer could: “We’ve already seen puppet sex, so nothing else can shock me.”
Although it may be tempting to take the kids to see this superb show, what with the puppets and all, don’t do it – but please hire a babysitter and go see it yourself. AVENUE Q is clutch-your-stomach funny, and the capable folks at Maurer Productions OnStage do a wonderful job translating this Broadway hit to the Kelsey stage.
by Jeff Whitty (book) and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics)
Directed by John M. Maurer
March 1-10, 2013
at Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Road
West Windsor, NJ 08550