BY ERIC REZSNYAK
Through July 21
Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd.
Tickets start at $25 | 232-4382, gevatheatre.org
“Avenue Q” swept the three major musical categories at the 2004 Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score), and deservedly so. It is one of a string of recent shows that prove that the American musical is still an art form with lots to offer audiences, and not just a money-making opportunity for entertaining but predictable stage adaptations of hit films.
The show is not for everyone (and most definitely not for young children). The frequent cursing, songs that embrace casual racism and pornography, and vigorous puppet sex call for a, shall we say, more open-minded audience (and indeed, the opening-night audience skewed much younger than a typical Geva show). But “Avenue Q” is more than its outrageous, attention-baiting trappings. Underneath all the puppet fur and sex talk is a well-written, well-acted show filled with great songs. It is both hilarious and surprisingly moving, and offers an honest and very entertaining portrait of that scary transition into adulthood.
“Avenue Q” is often described as “Sesame Street” for adults, and that’s about as succinct a description as you’re likely to get. A mix of humans, puppet monsters, and puppet humans live in a crappy neighborhood on the outskirts of New York City. Together the group tries to navigate the tricky realities of modern love, employment, money, and the overall purpose of life. Oh, and the superintendent of the building most of them live in is Gary Coleman, the former child actor from “Diff’rent Strokes,” here played by a woman.
The gang frequently bursts out into super-catchy musical numbers — as you do, if you live in New York City — and educational video bits occasionally play on the on-stage monitors to underscore various “lessons,” like the difference between six nightstands and a one-night stand.
Local audiences may have caught “Avenue Q” when the Rochester Broadway Theatre League brought the show to the Auditorium Theatre a few years back. The show remains basically the same — there have been minor tweaks to the script since the 2010 death of Coleman, and there’s a more current political reference in the closing song “For Now.” (On opening night, at least, an entire verse was also dropped from the song “Schadenfreude,” for some reason.) But fans of the RBTL production will find some interesting benefits by seeing it at Geva.
Chief among them is that the difference in venue sizes means that this show feels much more intimate. The audience gets a better chance to see the work the actors put not only into operating their many puppet characters, but also their own body language and facial expressions, which reflect what their felt avatars are experiencing. It’s fascinating to shift focus from puppet to actor and back again, and it underscores the incredible concentration required for what is essentially a simultaneously dual (and in some cases triple) performance. Additionally, there are little details — like singing rats popping out of the side of a building during one song — that you might not have caught had you seen the performance in a larger space.
The cast of the show lives up to the play’s high standards, with everyone contributing a good-or-better performance. Standouts include Morgan West, who is solid in his primary role of Princeton, but really excels in the supporting role of closeted gay puppet Rod. There’s a moment when West, as Rod, plays silently to the audience after the song “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada” that is funnier than it has any right to be. As Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, Jessica Albon puts her exceptional voice and charming presence to great use. Kako Kitano is fantastic as the ethnic-stereotype role Christmas Eve (she absolutely kills it on “The More You Ruv Someone”), and Jared Hagan brings lots of personality to Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and one-half of my personal favorites, the Bad Idea Bears.
On opening night the excellent band, led by Don Kott, did slightly overpower the cast in some of the up-tempo numbers. And the static set by Ryan McGettigan doesn’t effectively convey different locations. The primary solution of pull-down shades with alternate backgrounds is too subtle, and I’m not convinced they were consistently deployed opening night. The scenic disconnect was especially problematic at the beginning of Act 2, which is supposed to be set in Princeton’s trash-covered apartment, but which simply looked like the character was hanging out in piles of garbage placed all over the building’s stoop and the street. That made the subsequent song “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment” seem redundant.
But these are minor quibbles. Geva’s production of “Avenue Q” is as fresh and exciting as it should be, and when leaving the theater I overheard multiple people (again, most of them young) singing or humming songs from the show. That’s precisely what you want out of a night at a musical.
Click here for City’s brief video preview with “Avenue Q” cast member Morgan West.