This week's Tony Awards remind us that, quite often, the big awards for new musicals end up as a showdown between two shows. We had Once versus Newsies last year, Thoroughly Modern Millie versus Urinetown a while back, and this year, Kinky Boots versus Matilda. One of the most famous was during the 2003-2004 Broadway season, which saw Avenue Q beat out juggernaut Wicked for all of the major Tonys. Dayton audiences can currently see Avenue Q in a vibrantly directed and performed production by The Human Race Theatre Company.
Avenue Q tells the story of Princeton, a recent college graduate, as he looks to find his purpose in life (along with a career and love). The characters that fill the stage are a delightful mishmash of "human-like" puppets, real humans (including Gary Colemanwho is played by a woman) and monster puppets (both the endearing and the weird). The book by Jeff Whitty is uniquely original, while also smartly using our memory of children's TV programs as a frame of reference and structure for the piece. It's extremely witty and extremely humorous to see ever-so-slight variations on familiar puppet characters dealing with issues such as closeted homosexuality, bigotry, dead-end careers, Internet porn, one night stands and homelessness. Despite the cheeky and bold attitude, the show is ultimately about maturity, selflessness and self-acceptanceso it's not all frivolity.
The songs by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez are a perfect fit for the material. The bouncy melodies are catchy and remind us of those kid TV themes without ever being a rip off of them. The lyrics match the dialogue's hilarity and wit, even when profane (what other Broadway show could have the song lyrics of "Grab your dick and double click" as heard in the song "The Internet Is for Porn"?). Song highlights include the tuneful "Purpose," a very funny duet for Bert and Ernie-like roommates entitled "If You Were Gay," and the plaintive "It's a Fine, Fine Line," where the soft-hearted Kate Monster sings of her love for and frustration with Princeton.
For the Human Race mounting, director/choreographer Joe Deer, one of Dayton's best kept arts secrets, integrates movement and dance much more so than the Broadway production to great effect, and brings some unique, nuanced details in the staging which benefits from the intimacy of the Loft Theatre where the show is performed. Sean Michael Flowers directs a solid six-piece band.
This production features a talented cast of eight performers. James Oblak is the voice and puppeteer for both Princeton and Rod. He sings very well and provides distinct portrayals of the two characters. His Princeton is eager, earnest, and at times discouraged, the epitome of a recent college grad. Mr. Oblak's presentation of Rod is that of high strung and self-loathing, appropriate for closeted, conservative puppet. Katie Pees is also an excellent singer and mines tons of laughs from her roles. She is sweet and spunky as Kate Monster, and saucy as Lucy The Slut. Brett Travis nails all of the expected comedy as Trekkie Monster, and is a solid Nicky (the Ernie-like puppet) as well. Annie Kalahurka and Andrew Ian Adams are likewise very funny in bringing to life the appropriately named Bad Idea Bears, and Ms. Kalahurka is hilarious as the stern Mrs. T. As their human neighbors, Shawn Storms (Gary Coleman), Michelle Liu Coughlin (Christmas Eve) and Michael Thomas Walker (Brian) do well in support of the flashier puppet roles.
The unit set provided Dick Block is reminiscent of the Broadway design, suggesting a run-down Sesame Street type setting and flanked by two video screens. This version is a bit more cartoonish, though, and has more graffiti to emphasize the downtrodden situation of the characters. The costumes by Janet G. Powell for both the human characters and puppets are attractive, and the puppeteers are wisely kept in muted blacks. The first-rate lighting by John Rensel features some worthwhile effects throughout.
Avenue Q is fresh, entertaining, profane, funny, and fun! Leave the kids at home and enjoy a nostalgic trip back your childhood (or that of your now grown children) with the added punch of very adult humor, language and situations. This production boasts great direction and wonderful performances.
Avenue Q continues at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton through June 29, 2013. Visit www.humanracetheatre.org for tickets and more information.