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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Avenue Q Spells H-I-T for Balagan Theatre

Also see David's review of The Winter Wonderettes and his Interview with Ana Gasteyer

Avenue Q
Kirsten deLohr Helland
The 2004 Tony Award winning musical (Best Musical, Book, Music and Lyrics) Avenue Q was a sleeper hit, and its first Seattle production is quite simply glorious. This adult-skewed take on the "Sesame Street" formula is expertly directed by local wunderkind Eric Ankrim, with an able assist from veteran puppeteer Doug Willott, and the cast they have enlisted to tell the story of life-skill challenged puppet Princeton and the gang is pretty much ideal.

The book by Jeff Whitty follows recent college grad Princeton (Heathcliff Saunders) in his attempts to find his purpose in the world; his girlfriend Kate Monster (Kirsten deLohr Helland), a teaching assistant who wants to found a school for Monsters; and uptight closeted-gay Rod (Justin Huertas), who has a thing for his straight but supportive roomie Nicky (Brian Lange). Other people in the neighborhood include struggling Japanese (but often mistaken for Korean) counselor Christmas Eve (Diana Huey) and her schlubby stand-up comic fiancÚ Brian (Danny Kam), building super Gary (yes, as in "Different Strokes" child-star) Coleman (Rashawn Scott), Lucy the Slut (Kate Jaeger), and porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (Rob Scherzer), as well as the mischievous Bad Idea Bears (Katie Griffith and Ryan McCabe).

The life adventures of this furry bunch of puppets is handled with charm, foul-mouthed humor, and great, tuneful and lyrically inspired songs by Robert Lopez and Robert Marx. The show is less hard edged but at least as politically incorrect as TV's "South Park," but twice as funny, by my reckoning.

The cast consistently have developed their puppet characterizations so well that only a few moments in, you will forget the actors are right there, puppets in hand. Saunders and deLohr Helland are a romantic pair that is easy to root for, he personifying the frustrated twenty-somethings of the modern world where a college degree can mean squat, she the woman with her own dreams yet able to support her man. When deLohr Helland touchingly sings the show's one real heartbreaker, "It's a Fine, Fine Line," I challenge you not to shed a tear. Take the opportunity, though, because most of the show is gut-bustingly funny, as exemplified by Huertas and Lange, whose Rod and Nicky are what most of us always thought about Bert and Ernie. Huertas brings high-strung phobia of being outed to comic heights, and Lange is an actor who so inhabits his puppet that he might as well apply to the Henson folks for a job right now.

Diana Huey absolutely nails the Christmas Eve role, giving her the personality of a Chinatown restaurant hostess, and the pipes of a Judy Garland during her "The More You Ruv Someone" duet with deLohr Helland. Kate Jaeger is a sensational Lucy the Slut, by way of vintage Marilyn Monroe, and Scherzer brings a certain cuddliness Trekkie Monster's vulgarity that is appealing. Rashawn Scott is a hearty Gary Coleman, strong on her big number "Schadenfreude" and, in not overplaying the joke, she honors Coleman's memory. The sense of ensemble is strong among Ankrim's cast, and they are all to be lauded for their spirited work.

Musical director Chris DiStefano does well with his cast, and his quartet of musicians do full justice to the spirited score. Ron Darling and Ahren Buhmann share credit for the appropriately slummy neighborhood set, with Buhmann also contributing a solid lighting design, and Kathryn Dawson supplying both man and puppets with apropos costumes.

Though some of the language and themes of Avenue Q are admittedly adult, I would encourage anyone 12 or up to take in this awesomely entertaining show. It started to sell out before opening, though performances have been added, so now's the time to get in the queue for Avenue Q. Avenue Q runs at the Erickson Theatre through December 16th. For tickets or information contact the Balagan box office at 206-329-1050 or visit them online at www.balagantheatre.org.


Photo: Jeff Carpenter



- David Edward Hughes



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