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Review: Vintage Makes the Inanimate Intimate in Avenue Q

Avenue Q has arguably made the biggest splash on Broadway in the past decade. To give some context, its irreverent, adult take on a Sesame Street style puppet music won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004, over the epic and endlessly successful Wicked. Avenue Q tells the story of a young puppet, Princeton, trying to find his purpose in life, who meets a variety of characters, including the sweet and single Kate Monster, the grouchy, asocial Trekkie Monster, adult roommates Rod and Nicky, superintendent Gary Coleman, and unemployed Brian with his Asian-American fiancee named Christmas Eve.

Small Vintage Space Brings Challenges and Intimacy to Hilarious Piece

HE SAID:  I love this show as a piece of theatre and have since the cast recording was first released. What’s not to love about bringing Sesame Street into the real world and putting a more adult spin on things? It’s fun, irreverent, and guaranteed to make people laugh. So I was not surprised that I had fun at this production. It was expected. And while I had fun, there were also a number of things to which I had both positive and negative reactions. For example, I felt that the small Vintage space both helped and hindered the piece at times. Where the intimate nature of the space really worked was during the few serious moments in the show – particularly in “Fine, Fine Line”. The issue I did have with sitting so close, or being in such an intimate theater, was that the effort going into the puppetry work was evident, especially any mistakes like eye-lines from puppet to other characters not being accurate.

SHE SAID:  I totally agree that the small space was sometimes a challenge. Most simply, when the whole cast was onstage, there weren’t many options for where to put people! The only way that everyone was visible on the main level was to have the cast stand in one long, diagonal line, which in my mind always looks a bit off, unless there are Rockettes involved. Also, I will say that there were few times when the most exaggerated character voices were drowned out by the orchestra or the other singers during group numbers, but this wasn’t a problem at all during the solo numbers. I don’t think it was worth mic-ing them just for that, but some of the hilarious lyrics were lost during those moments, which is a shame. But I totally agree with HIM that the more intimate moments of the show were also really touching with the audience so close in. I also think that whatever edge the show has lost in the last half a decade (as shocking material always seems less shocking over time) is brought back in the small space. I thought I wouldn’t be traumatized by the puppets’ er, intimacies, but it was a lot more uncomfortable with an arm’s reach. In a good way, the spirit of the show is at times reinvigorated by the close setting.

Vintage Welcomes Puppets With Potty Mouths

HE SAID: Maybe it’s just me having seen/heard them many many times but I wasn’t fazed by those moments. Having seen the show multiple times on Broadway, tour, and now a couple of regional performances I feel that the key to really excelling with this show is making the most of the few comic moments that aren’t captured  in the songs on the recording. While this production hit a few of those – the puppets for the background singers during the song “Purpose” were ingenious – I found a lot of them were left not fully explored. The most striking example of this was during the Brian/Christmas Eve wedding scene. On Broadway, a massive inflatable Kate Monster rose over the building and chaos ensued to enhance the terror Princeton felt at the idea of getting married. While I don’t expect small houses to pull that same level of spectacle, I saw a great regional performance in San Jose where they made the most of what they had – including some actors with very large paper mache heads. In this production, there was no attempt to have fun with and exaggerate the moment that freaks Princeton out.

SHE SAID: I totally agree that for people who are die-hard fans of the Broadway version, those big, silly moments will be missed in this scaled-down production. Luckily, the musical clips right along with more songs full of great jokes, so I think that the average audience member won’t notice them missing. Another huge change is that the style of the puppets at Vintage is different from the Broadway and touring puppets — larger, simpler, and looking a little less like humans (especially Kate Monster). I was worried that I wouldn’t like the new puppets, but I actually thought they (mostly) worked! With the exception of the Nicky puppet, which seemed a bit TOO large, the larger size helped focus attention on them instead of the puppeteers. And although I could have done without Kate Monster’s Pepto-Bismol-inspired fur color, I liked that she looked more obviously like a monster than the traditional puppet.

Great Performers Breathe Life Into Puppets

HE SAID: I had mixed feelings about the new puppets. While I had no issues at all and even LOVED the new Trekkie Monster design, I did wish Princeton read a bit more human. I also thought that having Kate Monster look more monster-esque than the original design undercut the idea that there was a spectrum of monsters in the world. With regards to the size, I wasn’t sure if they actually were larger than normal or if sitting so close to the stage made them seem large. But putting puppet size to the side, the best thing this production has going for it is the cast. Anyone who knows Keith Rabin Jr. (who plays Princeton) knows that this is his dream role and as expected, Rabin nails it from the first note. For the record and the sake of full disclosure, I did audition for this show and was called back for the part of Rod, but the part ultimately went to Michael Bouchard who KILLS in that part. Having seen Bouchard in a few roles, I pretty sure that he could make the phone book hysterical and he makes the most of his character. But the real highlight of the show for me was Arlene Rapal as Christmas Eve, a character I’ve never fully engaged with in prior productions but who almost stole the show for me. She was hilarious without pushing. Her accent was thick but clear without going too slowly. She was simply incredible.

SHE SAID: I agree that the cast was great! As a whole, they really nailed the cutesy tone while delivering all of the unexpectedly crass lyrics and dialogue. I also adored Bouchard’s nuanced performance as Rod. Rabin was completely confident and I really enjoyed him the whole time as Princeton, and Paul Jaquith and Leslie Randle Chapman were kept busy with hilarious and energetic performances as smaller characters throughout. One tough requirement of the show is the need to for the actors to use character voices consistently, which everyone in the cast did really well. Carolyn Lohr as Kate Monster was appropriately sweet, and I really enjoyed hearing her singing voice unstifled by Kate Monster’s character voice as Lucy the Slut. Patrick Brownson did a super job as Trekkie monster, was instantly and consistently gruff but lovable.

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Vintage’s Avenue Q a Must-See For First Timers

THEY SAID: To be clear – if you haven’t seen Avenue Q before, get your ass down to Vintage and see this production. There is a reason that the run of this regional premiere is starting to sell out — it features great talent and the source material is fantastic. On the other hand, if you are a die-hard fan, know every moment of the soundtrack by heart, and have seen it multiple times, be warned that this production departs a bit from the norm in several ways. Some of these departures work better than others in Vintage’s unique space, and so you’ll need to bring an open mind if you add this production to your long list visits to Avenue Q.

For more information on Avenue Q , see the wikipedia article. Avenue Q plays through January 8 at Vintage Theatre.  Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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