My expectations were extremely high going into this production. I did see the original production, in previews, back in 2003 when barely anyone had heard of it. I went in, knowing nothing, and I came out one of Avenue Q’s #1 fans. Now, it’s a global phenomenon and a Tony Award winning musical that has had several tours and continues to play Off-Broadway at New World Stages (when it transferred from Broadway to Off-Broadway in Fall 2009). What I didn’t realize, until I saw it tonight, is that I have memorized every single lyric of the entire show. Not a bad thing, in most shows, but in Avenue Q half of the “funny” is the shock value. And, I wasn’t particularly shocked by anything, though I still laughed throughout.
One thing is for sure if you’ve never seen Avenue Q: you’ll snicker, giggle, laugh and guffaw all throughout Avenue Q, especially if you don’t get offended by strong language, puppet nudity/sex and racist remarks.
My favorite part of Avenue Q is how much heart it has. Even though the show’s fame comes from being the “adult version of Sesame Street”, the reason why you walk away loving it (and why it’s such a well-written show) is because, as an audience member, you relate to at least one of the characters – even if it’s a puppet or monster. At some point in our lives, we all deal with losing friendships, finding love, breaking up, getting married, unemployment and struggling to find our purpose in life. And creators, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, found a new way to approach these topics in a fresh, funny and sincerely heartfelt way. Avenue Q is just as relevant today as it was when it opened back in 2003. (Though they did have a to change a lyric from George Bush to Glenn Beck. Appropriate, and still very funny!)
Overall, one of my favorite parts of the production (and one I forgot about) was the use of Sesame Street-style graphics displayed on the big screen TV’s that taught us how to spell Schadenfreude, let us know what our purpose was and kept the show going at a quick-moving pace. Unfortunately, one of the TV’s was going in and out (apparently it broke as it was being loaded in) and that was a bit distracting. On Broadway, the TV screens were on the side of the stage and were stationary. I much prefer that — it was distracting for the TV’s to keep coming up and down throughout the production. Other than that, I thought the set was brilliant. What an ingenious way to create new stage pictures with a very stationary set.
Overall, the cast did a pretty good job. Jason Heymann, was the definite stand-out of the evening. He played the parts of Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear and a few others. He had an incredible shoes to fill considering that Rick Lyon – the man who conceived and designed all of the puppets for the original production – originated this role on Broadway. Heymann was the only one in the production that “became the puppet” (meaning that I wasn’t looking at the puppet and actor individually, I saw them as one and the same). While Kate Monster/Lucy (Jacqueline Grabois) and Princeton (Brent Michael DiRoma) came close, there was always a separation between them and so it was a little distracting deciding which one should I watch – the actor or puppet?
My main disappointment of the evening was Gary Coleman (Nigel Jamaal Clark). One of the funnier elements of the show, is when they introduce the superintendent in the song, “It Sucks to Be Me” and out comes Gary Coleman – as a woman! It’s shocking and hysterical! But in this tour, Gary Coleman is not a woman. He’s a man and unfortunately it’s just not that funny. Since the part was written for a woman, Clark had a hard time navigating the score. Sometimes it was too high for his voice, and other times, too low. He took different vocal riffs that ultimately didn’t work and most of his jokes landed flat. “Schadenfreude” is one of my favorite numbers in the entire show and I didn’t really laugh, at all.
Being in a new space (for the first time) and being in a theatre, the likes of the Center for the Performing Arts, can be challenging for a sound designer. The balance was almost there between the band and performers. At times, the band was too loud and wasn’t mixed well and other times it was great. Also, certain characters were louder than each other (it seemed that Princeton was always softer than everyone). I think, with each performance, it will only get better and better.
Overall, this non-Equity touring production of Avenue Q is well-worth seeing, especially if you haven’t had the chance to see this show. You’ll walk away humming several of the clever songs and having a sore gut from laughing too much. Plus, the production qualities of this tour is fantastic! You won’t want to miss it.
If you’ve seen it, then beware that the intimacy of the Broadway version is all but lost in the expansiveness of the theatre and the jokes might not be as shocking (since you already know them), but you’ll still laugh. While, overall the performers are super talented, they unfortunately don’t compare to the original cast. Knowing all of this, you’ll still end up laughing and having a great night of theatre!
P.S. – When they ask you for money in “The Money Song”, give it to them! It’s going to a great cause!
Avenue Q at Broadway San Jose
January 12th – 17th, 2010