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Phoenix
Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Avenue Q
Phoenix Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra's Bond and Beyond, Big River and 9 to 5


Emily Mulligan-Ferry, Pete Good, Brittney Mack, Toby Yatso, Aya Nameth, Colin Ross and Marisha Castle
The musical Avenue Q has been described as "Sesame Street" for grown-ups. It is full of R-rated laughs and mature situations combined with humorous songs and heartfelt life lessons that any adult would understand. The show won three 2004 Tony Awards, including those for Best Musical and Best Score, and is still running, now Off-Broadway, in New York. The Phoenix Theatre presented the show in 2011 and has brought it back for a seven week return engagement. The new production features excellent creative elements, spot on direction, and a hilarious cast that includes two actors who appeared in the previous Phoenix Theatre production.

Using a combination of human actors and muppet-like puppets, Avenue Q focuses on a group of young adults, all of whom are searching for their "purpose" in life. Recent college grad Princeton finds out he can only afford an apartment in a seedy neighborhood located on Avenue Q. The building's tenants are made up of both humans and monsters and include roommates Rod and Nicky (who are modeled on "Sesame Street"'s Bert and Ernie), the human couple Brian and his Japanese fiancé Christmas Eve, Kate and Trekkie who are monsters, and the superintendent who looks a lot like child TV star Gary Coleman. Together they struggle with life's ups and downs, but when a steady stream of obstacles are thrown in the way, they find their search for stable relationships, good jobs and happiness isn't as easy as they'd hoped.

An abundance of witty songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx are combined with a witty book by Jeff Whitty. Lopez, Marx and Whitty all won Tonys for their work and Lopez went on to co-write the score for The Book of Mormon and to win the Oscar for the song "Let It Go," which he co-wrote with his wife for the film Frozen. The score and book for Avenue Q perfectly combine to make this story of humans and puppets one that is genuine, meaningful and utterly hilarious.

Director Robert Kolby Harper has assembled a top-notch cast of actors, all of whom excel with at portraying the wide range of comical moments and humorous traits of each character. I saw the show several times on Broadway and this cast is just as good. They are more than capable, with the vocal skills needed to handle the requirements of the score, and those who have to handle the puppets do so with polished puppeteering skills. There truly isn't a weak link in the cast.

Toby Yatso and Emily Mulligan-Ferry were also in the Phoenix Theatre's 2011 production of the show. Yatso plays two puppet characters, the recent college grad Princeton and Rod, an uptight, in the closet, but very gay Republican. With a quick wit and expressive facial expressions, Yatso perfectly gets across both the idealistic Princeton, who discovers things in life aren't as easy as he'd hoped for, and the buttoned up, completely in denial Rod. Rod overreacts to many things and Yatso's ability to go from calm and sane to out and out frantic craziness is a joy to experience. Mulligan-Ferry does a solid job of playing both the warmhearted school teaching assistant Kate Monster and the ultra-risqué Lucy the Slut. Yatso and Mulligan-Ferry both have numerous scenes in which they have to quickly alternate between both of their characters and they do so with ease. Yatso uses a hysterical voice for Rod and Mulligan-Ferry an appropriately sultry voice for Lucy that help to distinguish between their characters. Mulligan-Ferry also has a lovely, rich singing voice which she gets to show off on a couple of Kate's songs.

Brittney Mack, Pete Good and Marisha Castle play the three human characters in the show. Mack excels in making Gary Coleman a sassy character with a great laugh and sleek moves. Good and Castle portray the newly engaged couple Brian and Christmas Eve, with Good displaying a charming and calm demeanor which balances nicely with Castle's highly agitated Christmas Eve. Colin Ross succeeds in his take on some smaller roles in the show which include Rod's sweet natured roommate Nicky as well as the porn addicted Trekkie Monster (a superb take off on "Cookie Monster"). Aya Nameth and Catherine Wong round out the cast with Nameth doing a fine job in of supporting Ross, with perfectly synchronized movements, to bring the large puppet of Trekkie to life.

Harper easily balances the humorous and serious moments of the show, never letting the humor get in the way of the charming message underneath the show. He also enhances the comic songs with a nice amount of charismatic and funny choreography which adds another layer of humor and really makes the musical moments soar. Robert Kovach's set design, while similar to the original New York production, adds some nice touches, including graffiti, a manhole cover, a street lamp, garbage and construction debris as well as set pieces that come off the stage to the sides of the audience—all of which combine to give a nice gritty feel to the space. Cece Sickler's costumes are simple yet effective with the puppeteers wearing black outfits to make them less noticeable and the human cast members in character appropriate garb. Daniel Davisson's lighting paints a wide range of colors and moods that work well with the humor and serious moments. The production also wisely uses Rick Lyon's original Broadway puppet designs. The colorful sets, costumes, lighting and puppets make the stage image pop with color.

Avenue Q is a combination of human actors and puppets, songs that cover a range of topics from racism to sexuality as well as heart-felt ones about finding one's purpose, and several interjected animated educational cartoons. With this combination, Lopez, Marx and Whitty have created an adult version of "Sesame Street" that lovingly mocks and portrays what an adult version of that show would be like. But, while the show is a spoof of "Sesame Street" with many laugh out loud, and very R-rated moments, it also has heart and identifiable characters and situations. Phoenix Theatre's production of the show is on-par with the Broadway production, with a talented cast, first rate creative elements and perfect direction.

Avenue Q runs through May 25, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151

Director/Choreographer: Robert Kolby Harper
Musical Director: Jeff Kennedy
Resident Dramaturge: Pasha Yamotahari
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Scenic Designer: Robert Kovach
Costume Designer: Cece Sickler
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Props Designer: Katie McNamara
Associate Production Manager: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Michelle Elias

Cast:
Marisha Castle: Christmas Eve
Pete Good: Brian
Brittney Mack: Gary Coleman
Emily Mulligan-Ferry: Kate Monster, Lucy
Aya Nameth: Mrs. T, Girl Bear
Colin Ross: Nicky, Trekkie, Boy Bear
Catherine Wong: Puppeteer
Toby Yatso: Princeton, Rod


Photo: Phoenix Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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