In one of the most shocking and controversial Tony results ever, Avenue Q took home best musical in 2003, defeating the much flashier, more star-studded and much larger-scale production of Wicked.
The outcry from people wondering how Jeff Whitty’s little show (with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) about puppets could take down what today still stands as one of the Great White Way’s most popular musicals, was heard far and loud throughout the theater community.
If the Broadway version was as glorious and laugh-out-loud funny as Olney Theatre Center’s new staging of the musical, it’s not that hard to understand why it won—Avenue Q combines incredibly catchy songs, clever wordplay and some of the best darn puppet acting this side of Sesame Street. And Olney does the show proud.
Understand, this is not your kid’s puppet show—political correctness be damned! There’s cursing, jokes about racism, homosexuals and porn, plus plenty of live puppet sex and nudity. And it’s all hilarious!
For the unexpected few who apparently ignored all the warnings and R-rated touting, there was definitely some shock in the air, but just as TV shows like South Park and Family Guy have been able to push the envelope, Avenue Q does so in such a silly way that it doesn’t come off as too offensive. Think about it, how bad is live puppet sex really?
While you contemplate that, consider that in its simplest form, Avenue Q is a love story that evolves out of a group of friends who live in the same building and the different relationships and friendships that transpire between the group come to life.
The story begins through the eyes of Princeton, voiced sweetly by Sam Ludwig, who comes to the city after graduating college, unsure of what his purpose in life should be. He moves to Avenue Q and quickly befriends the very human Brian and Christmas Eve, as well as Ernie and Bert wannabe puppets Nicky and Rod (who Ludwig also voices), Kate Monster and Gary Coleman.
Now before you can say, “Whatcha Talkin’ bout Willis?” yes, there is a character in the musical based on the former child star, played marvelously by Kellee Knighten Hough. As the landlord of Avenue Q, Coleman serves the purpose of showing how life can hand you a bad hand, and Hough has some of the funniest bits in the show with the songs “Schadenfreude,” “You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want” and her part in the opening number explaining how life sucks.
Rachel Zampelli, fresh off a winning performance in Ford’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, handles the puppetry and voice of Kate Monster, the kind monster-next-door kindergarten teacher’s assistant who falls for Princeton. Zampelli is wonderful and brings out plenty of emotion in her puppet in songs like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and the adorable duet with Princeton in, “Mixed Tape.”
Zampelli switches gears to take the reigns of the puppet Lucy the Slut, getting sultry and sexy with the song “Special.” The fact that she can play two sides of a puppet love triangle—and create two distinctive voices—shows what a gifted performer she is.
The are-they-or-aren’t-they question that has plagued Sesame Street’s famous roommates is explored through the very obviously gay Rod and his straight friend Nicky. Stephen Gregory Smith plays the latter and the chemistry between the two puppets is just as winning as that of Ernie and Bert. The gay jokes get a little strong at times (especially in a side story between Rod and Christmas Eve) but songs like “If You Were Gay” and “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” sanitize it enough with humor that no one will walk away offended.
Smith also is responsible for the deep-talking puppet Trekkie Monster and is a hoot as the vulgar porn-loving puppet. Puppeteer David Landstrom literally lends a hand to both the Nicky and Trekkie puppets, helping Smith to humanize the hand motions and movements of both—a skill that couldn’t have been easy.
As for those humans, Evan Casey’s lovable Brian interacts well with his puppet counterparts but it’s Janine Sunday as his Japanese fiancé Christmas Eve who really steals the show. With her exaggerated strong accent and despair about being a therapist with no clients, she practically brings down the house with “The More You Ruv Someone” and her belly-laughing part in “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.”
Also lending a hand in the chorus and helping to operate puppets were Awa Sal Secka and Tracey Stephens, who along with Landstrom, added plenty of energy and great vocal harmonies.
Closes July 20, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
It can’t be easy directing humans and puppets but Jason Loewith does a great job creating laughs from stage directions that have the characters dancing in silly choreographed movements, walking around the streets of Manhattan and, of course, that puppet sex mentioned earlier.
The strong orchestra, led by musical director Christopher Youstra, did seem a bit loud at times, especially during group numbers when the cast was sometimes overpowered, but the lively music kept everyone in a joyous mood.
Multimedia displays that seemed straight out of PBS educational shows were a fun addition, thanks to projection designer JJ Kacznski’s warped (but in a good way) mind. And the gray-toned costumes by designer Rosemary Pardee kept the focus on the puppets when needed.
I walked away from the theater singing several of the songs—although with lyrics that are a little dicey, I had to be careful who I was around. This was one of the funniest and craziest shows I have seen in a long time.
Most suited for those ages 16 and over.
Avenue Q . Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx . Book by Jeff Whitty . Directed by Jason Loewith . Choreograpy: Bobby Smith . Music Direction: Christopher Youstra . Costumes: Rosemary Pardee . Projections: JJ Kacznski . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Keith Loria.