'Avenue Q' at the Lansburgh Theatre: Smutty puppets in a Shakespeare temple?
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Can a temple of Shakespeare possibly be a suitable venue for the slings and arrows of outrageous puppets?
Why, sure. The dirty-minded denizens of "Avenue Q" have plopped their smutty little selves down in the Lansburgh Theatre for the next few weeks, bringing into that Shakespeare Theatre Company space their eternally delectable grab bag of postmodern wisecracks.
This touring, non-Equity production is a reasonable facsimile of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, with some reservations. Vocally, for example, some performers are more accomplished than others. Of course, actors lacking a union card do not automatically turn in inferior performances; it's just that an ensemble with less experience tends to have more extreme peaks and valleys.
So if a few cast members have a little ways to go, that's not fatal to "Avenue Q." The show, a sendup of the vicissitudes of young adulthood in the form of a "Sesame Street" parody, revels to a certain degree in shabbiness and the erratic fortunes of the post-collegiate set. Fortunately, too, some actors radiate thorough professionalism, chief among them Jacqueline Grabois, whose portrayals of two puppet characters -- unlucky-in-love Kate and libertine Lucy -- are of an elite caliber.
The tour booking has prompted some head-scratching in the town's theater circles: Is this any way to run a classical company? It's true that turning the troupe's second stage over to a contemporary musical is a radical departure. (Next up in the space is Michael Kahn's staging of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well.") But considering that the Lansburgh would otherwise be dark in late July, and that "Avenue Q" truly is a winningly witty evening, the question of hewing to a mission becomes a rather hollow debate topic.
Please be advised: "Avenue Q" is not a family musical -- unless the youngest member of your family is a savvy teenager. The intermingled puppets and flesh-and-blood characters say things that will scandalize sensitive ears. And a couple of the puppets even do the nasty. The production is visually identical to all the other "Avenue Qs" I've seen; the story of aimless, bright-eyed Princeton (an appealing Brent Michael DiRoma), falling in with the various denizens of a blighted New York City block, plays out on set designer Anna Louizos's recognizably rundown streetscape.
An effort is made for the puppets to sound a lot like they did on Broadway. (The New York production recently moved back to its roots, off-Broadway.) Zach Trimmer, an understudy playing Nicky and Cookie Monster knockoff Trekkie Monster on the night I attended, is an especially good mimic. But for some reason, trims have been made in some songs that prove irksome to a returning customer. Why, for instance, mess with a bilious gem of a number like "Schadenfreude," a paean to our tendency to enjoy other people's misfortunes?
A touchier issue arises with a character named for Gary Coleman, the former child TV star whose adult financial hardships have been widely chronicled over the years. The down-on-his-luck character is the superintendent of a tenement on Avenue Q: He sings "Schadenfreude." With Coleman's death in May, there's the question of the appropriateness of retaining him as the butt of a cruel joke.
In the "Avenue Qs" I'd previously seen, Gary Coleman was played by a woman, another dash of absurdist irony. Here, Charles M. Baskerville is Coleman. I've never thought that making fun of the defenseless Coleman was the show's classiest conceit. But the casting of a male actor at least removes one layer of snark.
The puppeteering here is solid, particularly by DiRoma, who has the singular ability to make inanimate characters appear to breathe and feel. If his voice is not the powerhouse instrument you might desire, it will -- like other elements of this almost-there touring version -- just about do.
Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; book by Jeff Whitty. Directed by Jason Moore. Costumes, Mirena Rada; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Jon Weston and Lew Mead. With Kerri Brackin, Julianna Lee, Tim Kornblum. About two hours.