Theater Review: Avenue Q at Asheville Community Theatre
Hilarity comes to the Asheville Community Theatre stage courtesy of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q. Set on the titular block, the first — after starting with Avenue A — with rent prices low enough for recent college graduate Princeton to afford, the Sesame Street parody plays with the child-friendly stories of its inspiration, tweaking them with adult themes, language and visuals that are sure to entertain game audiences.
Like many of Avenue Q’s characters, Princeton is a puppet, and he’s performed with immense personality and impressive facial control by Matthew Harper. Following his lead and likewise dressed in black attire by Carina Lopez to match his or her character’s personality, each dextrous puppeteer traverses the stage, operates the sticks connected to the puppet’s hands and moves its mouth in sync with his or her own vocal work with remarkable ease. Just as importantly, they excel at inflecting exaggerated, classic Muppet voices, be it Elmo high-pitched or Cookie Monster gravelly low.
Certain puppeteers, however, throw themselves into their performances in more animated ways than Harper, occasionally to the extent that the human face becomes the focal point instead of the felt character covering his or her hand(s). Avoiding that outcome while delivering a convincing vocal result is understandably challenging, and those whose processes are more visible reveal strong acting, but more conspicuous costuming by Lopez to cloak their features or similar mechanisms might have kept eyes firmly on the actual characters.
Masterful as frustrated kindergarten assistant teacher Kate Monster, Lara Hollaway’s vocal command and singing prowess is clear from the start as she imbues the spirit of something resembling Kristen Bell’s cool young aunt. Among her neighbors are Bert and Ernie stand-ins Rod (Andy Thompson) and Nicky (Matt Edwardsen), whose quirky roommate dynamic receives a solid introduction with Nicky’s declaration of acceptance, “If You Were Gay,” and the reclusive Trekkie Monster (Will Ezzell), whose pastime of choice is revealed through standout number, “The Internet is for Porn.”
Elsewhere, Chelsey Lee Gaddy Mirheli humorously shakes up the block as saucy singer Lucy the Slut — even prompting a female audience member to shout, “You’re an asshole,” after a particularly catty action. And stealing each of their scenes, Marci Bernstein and Christy Montesdeoca are a riot as the Bad Idea Bears, who pop up at key intervals to adorably lead Princeton and Kate astray with their puppets’ teddies-on-crack faces. The duo also voice memorable minor characters and respectively operate the second hands of Nicky and Trekkie Monster, puppets with full-functioning five-finger hands instead of inanimate, stick-connected extremities.
The plain old human cast is also excellent. Ariel Casale’s cheery but world-weary take on overalls-clad landlord Gary Coleman — yes, that Gary Coleman — brings a freshness to what in lesser hands could easily devolve into stunt casting, a risk each production of this musical takes. Leif Brodersen is comparably delightful as tall man-child Brian, and Ness Nowick deftly handles the verbal gymnastics as his Japanese fiancée Christmas Eve, nailing the many “L” and “R” switching that pepper her lines.
Together, puppets and humans alike navigate romance, racism, sexual identity, homelessness and other growing pains with equal parts heart and vulgarity under smooth direction by Jeff Catanese. Recognizing the limits of the smaller production, Catanese (perhaps wisely) nixes the “purpose/propose” bit from larger stagings where a giant Kate Monster head rises above the closed bodega between the apartments and freaks out Princeton, but otherwise generally sticks to the Broadway version.
The gritty urban set by Jill Summers provides an optimal backdrop for these life lessons and the chorus sung by suddenly animated cardboard boxes in “Purpose” received big laughs from the opening night crowd, one of many instances in which the lively unseen pit orchestra directed by Rob Blackwell plays a vital role.
In the mode of Sesame Street’s brief educational interludes, silly video graphics by Zach Rosing and Ben Phillippe provide quality yuks, namely one involving nightstands, while comedic silhouettes of characters getting physical during “You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” highlight Jason Williams’ lighting gifts.
For the opening night performance, a few mics could have been turned up higher during several musical numbers, particularly Casale’s, a few of whose funny lines felt dwarfed by the orchestra and lost in the sonic mix. But even with a few lost jokes, it’s clear the entire cast is having a joyful time that’s only amplified by the audience’s frequent laughter.
Avenue Q runs Oct.5-28, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Additional Thursday performances Oct. 18 & 25 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org
(Photos: Studio Misha Photography)