Word From The Street: Avenue Q Rocks

A ride to “Avenue Q” could be the best trip you make all year. You won’t need MapQuest to find it. You will need a sense of humor that can appreciate the naughty and the nice — and a sense of wonder at how a production like this can come together in the first place.

The show that stunned and delighted Broadway when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004 is finally making its first visit to Boston. The timing couldn’t be better, we all need a kick in the pants after the winter we’ve just had — if only the run could be longer.

So what’s the best way to describe “Avenue Q?” Forbidden Broadway meets Sesame Street? Kind of. The plot is pretty basic. A newly minted college grad, Princeton, has to hit the low rent district in search of his first apartment — he also has to find his purpose in life. On Avenue Q he finds a place to call home, and a collection of folks that will help shape his near-future. Nothing earth shattering there — until you meet the neighbors.

So, there’s Kate Monster, Trekkie Monster, Nicky and Rod — did I mention they were puppets! Oh yeah, and the superintendent of the building just happens to be Gary Coleman. That’s right, that Gary Coleman. Sound a little hard to grasp as a coming of age musical? — it is. Wonderfully so. But the snap and energy of the music also carries a measure of street cred — all the days aren’t sunny ones on “Avenue Q.”

So how does an actor go about playing a character, and wield a puppet at the same time? With wit, timing, and an abundance of talent is the quick answer. Robert McClure is nothing less than a revelation as Princeton, and also as Rod (an uptight financial planner nervously trying to come out of the closet). Like his fellow puppeteers, McClure’s “costume” is a flat grey shirt and pants — it’s the puppets that get the snazzy outfits. It’s his amazing facial expressions and body movement that light up the stage (it doesn’t hurt that he has a killer voice too), bringing a special humor and humanity to songs like What To You Do With a B.A. in English, and I Wish I Could Go Back to College.

McClure has a perfect partner in Kelli Sawyer who plays Kate Monster, a sweet but savvy kindergarten teacher, and Lucy, a slutty barroom singer. I love the fact that Sawyer is actually older than her main character, the practical but romantically challenged Kate. It’s like Sawyer’s street smart perspective flows through her spunky puppet, and when she sings the heartbreaking ballad There’s a Fine, Fine Line you realize the edge comes from an actress who knows love isn’t always a two way street. Sawyer wears a plain black dress on stage, but she absolutely radiates color and depth.

David Benoit is the other force of nature that lifts “Avenue Q” to its most side-splitting comic highs. A Fall River native and a graduate of the Boston Conservatory he pilots the porn loving Trekkie Monster, and gets in touch with his inner-Ernie (as in Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street) as Nicky, Rod’s not gay roommate. Benoit is a big man, with a big smile, and he’s such a delightful voice actor you bust out in a smile as soon as he hits the stage. He is the granite curb that keeps “Avenue Q” a vital destination.

So let’s go back to the puppet thing for a minute — what’s the deal here? Is it a gimmick to hold up a show that’s run thin on ideas? No. No. No. It’s just the opposite. The puppets are essential to “Avenue Q” — they open everything up, and make the most outrageous gags possible. The plot would be totally creepy and unsatisfying without them, and that is the genius of the show.

You can’t say enough about what composers and writers Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty have accomplished here. The songs are priceless, It Sucks to Be Me, The Internet Is for Porn, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, and Schadenfreude are hysterical. Schadenfreude (getting pleasure from the misfortunes of others) is a perfect example. I mean, would you ever guess a musical number with that title (sung by the character Gary Coleman) could have people singing the melody as they walk out the door? Amazing.

“Avenue Q” is truly a tight knit ensemble piece, and the Boston cast is as good as they come. Sala Iwanatsu has some killer moments as Christmas Eve, a Japanese immigrant with a couple of masters degrees, and a slacker boyfriend. Danielle Thomas gets the endearing absurdity of Gary Coleman (yes he is played by a she) just right. And Minglie Chen does incredible work handling a dizzying array of puppets and voices in a supporting role. She has a special flair with a cute little teddy bear that has a very nasty agenda.

It’s not perfect. True to its rough and tumble roots, “Avenue Q” does not have a rave up ending. You leave with more of a sigh than a rush, but it’s completely in step with Q’s world view. In the show I saw understudy Cullen Titmas is a little too slackerized as the character Brain. Sure, Bri’s supposed to be unmotivated — but he does have a pulse. There’s also the issue of the two plasma TV screens that pop up on either side of the set. I found them a little annoying at the start, but they are put to much better use as the story unfolds. The set, by the way, a block of New York City brownstones, is terrific.

Finally, and I must say this as a public service, “Avenue Q” is not for the little ones. There is swearing and sexual references and simulated puppet sex too. I’d say a mature 13 is about as young as you can go. Hey, give ’em something to look forward to when they’re a little older. For the right type of theatre fan this is truly a show not to be missed. You only have until March 23 to catch it at the Colonial Theatre.


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