It should be noted, in all fairness as a spectator, that I walked into The Red Masquers production of Avenue Q with a profoundly intense ardor for the quirky—at times aberrant—musical. Ardor may be putting it lightly, even—on various iterations of my iPod and iTunes, “The Internet is For Porn,” “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” “If You Were Gay,” and “Schadenfreude” were all featured in my top fifteen most frequently played tracks, each with well over 500 plays. Based on the book by Jeff Whitty, with lyrics and music by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q was released as on Off-Broadway production in 2003, and was heralded as a bizarre triumph, blending the aged, acerbic snark and crass disillusionment of 90s sitcoms with the puppet sensibility and sly innocence of Sesame Street. My first stumbling upon the play as a 14 year old, peculiarly enough, was through my father, whose students had burnt him the soundtrack in order to convey the ennui of the post graduate Gen Xers—those who found themselves over-talented, over-educated, over-preoccupied with themselves, and distinctly underemployed and under-stimulated. I listened to the soundtrack in the car with my father religiously, strangely bonding over the perverse cleverness of the lyrics, the strange appeal of the hyper-sexual, obscene monsters, and the nuances of the caricatures portrayed by both the wily monsters and plucky humans alike. Avenue Q impacted me in a particularly unique way, as months prior the musical object of my obsessive affection had been Rent. Q was a hyper-realistic Rent on a come down from a bender.
I could appreciate the biting humor and musical flare of Q at 14, but the scathing realism of the musical fiasco was lost on me in a way that now, as a 25 year old barista with a Master’s Degree, is achingly funny given my current position. And perhaps so much of the triumph of the production of Avenue Q—because the source material was incredibly familiar and nearly impossible to spoil—was the stupendous efficaciousness and vibrancy of the multi-talented cast. Set appropriately on a minimalist stage, the cast delivered each song, each demoralizing joke with a certain dead-on-the-inside hutzpah that is completely apropos for the play. It is first necessary to sing the praises of the cast responsible for portraying the “real humans” in the ensemble—Angela Griffo as Christmas Eve, Nate Yost as Brian and Mikayla Gilmer as Gary Coleman. It is no small feat to act side by side to the purposefully exaggerated stage theatrics of actors doubling as puppeteers, but the crew of “real folks” pull it off beautifully. Yost brings his usual bombastic versatility to the spirited but underappreciated wannabe standup comedian; Griffo tackles the, at times, problematically stereotypical “Asian wife” Christmas Eve, with harmonic splendor and steadfastness through the more uncomfortably caricatured moments of the character; and Gilmer is utterly electric as the show’s inexplicable omniscient celebrity/landlord, Gary Coleman.
But there is much to be said too, as one would presume, about the flawless performances of the “monster” ensemble. While the finer manipulations of the puppets jabberwocking were sometimes evident, the translation of human to puppet emotions and physicality were nearly impeccable across the board. Moreover, the musical prowess and resounding enthusiasm of the cast is palpable—and the enthusiasm holds up in even the more taxing numbers, like the uproarious “You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” (which accomplished miracles of puppet coitus that I am still daunted to imagine in normal intercourse). Each “monster” or human puppet—Princeton/Rod, Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, Nicky/Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bears 1 & 2, Mrs. Thisletwat and Ricky (lplayed respectively by Daniel Watts, Sienna Dalessandro, Hayden Lounsbury, Bandon Anderson and Katheryn Hess, Izzy Tarcson—is animated with such poise and pizzazz, and impressive ability to often switch between distinctly different puppet roles, that to enumerate their skills would be a two page review unto itself. A standout of gruff proportions is unquestionably Hayden Lounsbury, bringing the masturbation-addled Trekkie Monster and oblivious desire-object and supportive straight best friend Nicky to life with such distinctly eccentric flair that does justice to both very unique characters.
The poignant, yet savagely funny moments of Avenue Q ring true even more agonizingly in this stage iteration—the forlornness of closeted Republican Rod’s pining for his roommate Nicky (in a fantastic take on the Bert and Ernie relationship) is brilliant; the despondency of the question of what do you do with a BA in English is iridescently brutal. There are moments, though, that in a re-watching may have been better altered given current social climates, like the tricky, if not brusquely funny “Everyone Is A Little Bit Racist.” That being said, the production is worth partaking in regardless of any foreknowledge of the play. After all, what else are you going to do with your liberal arts education?
Special thanks to the Duquesne University Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. Avenue Q runs at the Genesius Theatre through October 9th. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Photo credit: Morgan Paterniti