There’s a difference between seeing Avenue Q when you’re in college and seeing Avenue Q almost four years after college. When I saw it in college I was all “HA! Puppets saying fuck and having sex and dealing with adult situations, ha ha ha!”. Seeing it recently at University of Pitt Stages made me think “Oh crap, this is surprisingly real.” Watching a puppet go through problems with money, work, and relationships isn’t as fun when you realize you’re the puppet now. How the times have changed.
Avenue Q is the now-classic (safe to say, right?) musical that is easily described as an “R-rated Sesame Street”. Puppets and humans coexist on the same street, dealing with gritty real-life problems using sugary-sweet voices and adorableness to do so. This production is presented in the studio theater located in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning. The dingy building block is right in the audience’s faces, as are the bright plushy characters that live on the street.
Now Avenue Q can be considered offensive by some. The company knows this, and they really relish in the moments where they get to shock their audience a little bit. They cheekily sing about racism, internet porn, and having loud sex (with puppets, so it’s not weird). Tim Kaniecki has fun with the manic energy of closeted-Republican puppet Rod, while Molly Balk tears up her number “Special” as Lucy the Slut, the trashiest puppet you’ve ever seen, probably.
But the other half of Ave Q is to catch the sentimental, emotional moments. It’s undeniably tricky to pull at the heartstrings when you’re speaking through some constructed felt on your hand, but if you can pull it off it’s very impressive. The romance between puppets Princeton (Alex Dittmar) and Kate Monster (Lauryn Thomas) goes through some major ups and downs, but not every scene with them is effectively milked to really feel the pain they go through. However, Ms. Thomas does sing an angry and well-belted rendition of “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” at the end of Act 1 that really grabs hold of the character’s frustration. The unrequited crush Rod has on roommate Nicky (Charles Kronk) is played both for laughs and sadness, and fairs a bit better on the latter than the other couple.
The small space might have done more harm than good for the cast. It’s a very wide room but the set isn’t very deep, which somewhat limited movement for the performers. It’s true that puppets don’t need a lot of intensely-choreographed numbers, but some of the songs require a bit more energy than what was provided. Other factors like sound issues also caused a few jokes to be lost in the shuffle, particularly in “There is Life Outside Your Apartment”, which relies on many sound cues that just didn’t land.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh the entire time. The numbers I loved in college I still loved, especially the classic “The Internet is for Porn” sung by the adorable perverse Trekkie Monster (Jay Garcia). The thick-accented Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (Chih-hsuan Chang) also gets some great lines, and Chang really sold her touching and slightly racist number “The More You Ruv Someone”.
I had a nice weekend of seeing college studio productions. Whether it’s a Shakespeare play or a modern hit, I find it nice to see what students are capable of doing. Although I can’t say I agree with the puppets of Avenue Q when they sing “I Wish I Could Go Back to College”, I will say it’s nice to dip back in from time to time and see the growing talent. Crap, I feel like an old person. I’m gonna go lay down.
Presented by University of Pittsburgh Stages
Directed by Bria Walker
Musical Direction by James Rushin
Written by Jeff Whitty (book), Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics)
Designed by Gianni Downs (scenery), Ayushi Dwivedi (costumes), Annmarie Duggan (lighting), Angela Baughman (sound)
Starring Molly Balk (Lucy the Slut), Chih-hsuan Chang (Christmas Eve), Alex Dittmar (Princeton), Jay Garcia (Trekkie Monster/Bad Idea Bear), Tim Kaniecki (Rod), Charles Kronk (Nicky), Daria Sullivan (Gary Coleman), Lauryn Thomas (Kate Monster), Madrid Vinarski (Mrs. Thistletwat/Bad Idea Bear), James Williamson (Brian).
Special thanks to the University of Pitt Stages for two complimentary press tickets.
The show runs until Nov 23rd. Tickets can be purchased here.
Performance Date: November 9, 2014