Avenue Q

19453131_1691923564168439_4645815066624068545_oImagine if Sesame Street was for adults. This is the premise of Avenue Q, a place where puppets are friends, Monsters are good and life lessons are learned.

The show tells the story of Princeton, who is a young man just out of college. He is looking for an affordable apartment landing on Avenue Q, since he can’t afford a place on A through P.

Since many of the characters are portrayed, (in the spirit of Sesame Street), by puppets, the audience is required to look past the puppet and actor as separate entities and meld them into one character.

In this production, the puppets stylistically mimic their actor/puppeteers both in look and expressions. Usually, within a few minutes, the actor and puppet merge into one being in the eyes of the audience.

As originally written, Avenue Q is a coming-of-age parable that deals with the transition to adulthood in a racially and ethnically diverse starter neighborhood. The writers saw it as a semi-autobiographical story of their early lives. For the Alumni Theatre Company, Director Halle Danner has adapted the show “to bring meaning and relevance to the performance from the perspective of young Black Americans.”

Her vision incorporates major changes, the most obvious being the characters are now all black. Five short videos have been added that serve as transition between scenes and serve to tie the characters back to their growing up black experiences. Several songs have been cut and two younger characters have been added along with a few other tweaks.

Since Avenue Q won the Tony for Best Musical in 2004, the script has become a bit dated. Donner’s changes serve to modernize the story as well as to remind us that even though Avenue Q is cute and funny “the struggle is real.”

The core story remains intact; Princeton does find a place on Avenue Q to rent from the building’s superintendent Gary Coleman. In the building lives Kate Monster an aspiring teacher with a dream to build a special school for monsters and to find companionship in life. Princeton is a bit aimless as he tries to find his purpose in life. Roommates Nicky and Rod work through their friendship as Rod discovers he is gay, a fact everyone else already suspects. Christmas Eve searches for a job as a counselor that will put her two Masters Degrees to good use, while her new husband Brian just looks for a job. Lucy finds God and regains her virginity. Eventually it all works out “For Now”.

Shae Wafford as Princeton
Shae Wofford as Princeton

The experience these young actors have had at The Alumni Theatre Company, their academic training (many are CAPA students or recent graduates) and previous roles provide them with a remarkable comfort level on stage.

Point Park graduate Shae Wofford plays Princeton with a bright-eyed enthusiasm of a young man about to start a new job, in a new town, in a new apartment. Woodford is a funny guy whose portrayal is delightful to watch. He is also quite adept at manipulating the puppet character.

Katherine Logan creates a loveable Kate Monster. She and her puppet both have “million dollar” smiles, that’s very helpful as she works through her relationship with the erratic and sometimes unfathomable “guy”  behaviors of Princeton. Logan is the best at mastering the dual aspect of visible puppeteer and character. She also has one of the best singing voices of the cast.

Katherine Logan as Kate Monster
Katherine Logan as Kate Monster

James Perry does double duty as booth Trekkie Monster and Nicky, Rod’s roommate. Both characters are inherently compassionate. I thought Perry’s portrayal as Trekkie missed the opportunity to be over the top funny in the very cheeky The Internet is for Porn song. Perhaps his Trekkie costume was a bit limiting.

Rod is played with a perfect sense of uptight identity confusion by Amaru Williams.

Grace Ransome nails the role of Gary Coleman and she was a wonderful surprise, she is a soon to be high school freshman. She plays Gary with a wisdom unexpected for a person her age. Look for her to do more great things in the future. Her voice is quite mature and here expressions spot on for the character.

Gracie as Gary Coleman and James Perry as
Grace Ransome as Gary Coleman and James Perry as Nicky

Shakara Wright plays the character referred to in the original production as “Lucy the Slut” here shortened to just Lucy. She explores the use of her gifts to manipulate Princeton to her pleasure advantage, of which he is mostly clueless. Wright is a senior acting major at Point Park with a good sense of comedic timing which is evident in the multiple characters she portrays.

Rounding out the cast of acting veterans are Shakirah Stephens and Lyn Star as the couple Christmas Eve and Brian. Christmas Eve has Brian’s number and knows how to dial it.

The puppets are a key element of Avenue Q. Pittsburgh’s own Puppet Master Cheryl Capezzuti has done a nice job of capturing the actors’ faces in the puppets and served as puppeteer coach.

Shakara Wright as Lucy
Shakara Wright as Lucy

The orchestra under the direction of Camille Rolla is top notch. The Sound Design by Brendan Elder is just plain too loud, a pet peeve of mine in intimate venues like the New Hazlett Theater.

Staycee Pearls imaginative choreography is subtle and not overpowering and the cast performs it well.

Katelynn Fynaardt’s well executed set design captures the Avenue Q neighborhood vibe. A large billboard hangs over the apartment building and serves double duty as a place for the new video elements of this production.

Director Donner says “Avenue Q is about twenty-something’s finding purpose in life. That couldn’t be more relevant to us. Yet the show’s casual attitude of “just relax” and let life happen to you and it will all work out is very much a viewpoint created through the lens of white privilege.”

In the original conceptualization of Avenue Q, the racial, ethnic and gender mix of the characters serves to point out to the carefully taught racism that we all carry to different degrees. Donner’s change to all black characters inherently changes the show’s message regarding becoming aware of your own personal prejudices and possible racism.  Her Avenue Q morphs into a more of a sanitized look into the lives of young blacks as they transition to adulthood.

Projection Designer Adam Paul’s five well produced Sesame Street style videos were written by several cast members and Bridgett Perdue. They provide insight into what it is like to grow up black. While those video segments were fun, entertaining and enlightening, they definitely altered the shows pacing and energy flow which, I felt was a negative.

The Director and ATC founder Hallie Donner has done a terrific job honing the young cast’s performances. Her ability to rethink the show’s focus to provide the black perspective is admirable in its intent, but in doing so, it alters the balance of what has made Avenue Q work so beautifully.

The first time I saw Avenue Q it taught me a valuable lesson I carry with me every day. This production offered me insight.

The Alumni Theatre Company’ production of Avenue Q is located at the New Hazlett Theatre in the North Side with performances on July 29th at 8pm and the  30th at 7pm. For tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/store/events/11504  

Photos courtesy of the Alumni Theatre Company’s Facebook page.