Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Avenue Q
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Kelli Sawyer, Angela Ai and
Minglie Chen

Just two blocks apart on Randolph Street, the big two rivals for the 2004 Tony Best Musical Award meet again. Ironically, this was the week Wicked's producer David Stone announced the closing of his mega-hit for next January 25th, after a record-setting 3-1/2 years and 1,500 performances. Meanwhile, Avenue Q begins its measly three-week Chicago run almost five years after the show's Broadway opening, and about 2/3 of the way through its fourteen-month national tour. Despite the delay, the show's producers have brought the show to us with a top-shelf cast that knows the piece well and seems to have lost no energy for it over the time they've been performing it.

Most of the company had been with Avenue Q either on Broadway, in Las Vegas or both, like Kelli Sawyer, who repeats as Kate Monster, etc. here and has all the heart for that sweet little beast of an elementary-school teacher, together with a singing voice that can belt all the way to the second balcony of the 2,200-seat Cadillac Palace. As Princeton and Rod, Robert McClure, who has played Nicky and others on Broadway, is a thoroughly charming and likable innocent. David Benoit repeats with sureness and versatility the roles of Nicky and Trekkie Monster he played on Broadway. Carla Renata, who plays Gary Coleman, is in Chicago for only the first week of the run and is a spunky Gary. Angela Ai, who understudied Christmas Eve on Broadway, offers a nice alternative take on her character as compared to Ann Harada's Broadway interpretation —a little less screechy, a little more controlling. Cole Porter, who's been playing Brian on tour after similar duties in Las Vegas, left the performance at intermission and was replaced by swing Cullen R. Titmas, who delivered a suitably hangdog Brian for the second act.

When the show's producers shocked the theatre world by announcing shortly after it was the big winner at the 2004 Tonys that Avenue Q would not have a national tour, but instead would have an exclusive production in Las Vegas, one of the reasons they gave was that they believed the show wouldn't play well in the giant theaters that host most national touring productions. Surprisingly, it seems to work quite well. If memory serves, there may be a few elements added since Broadway to fill the space a little more. When Rod develops anxiety over the prospect of committing to Kate, a giant inflated replica of her looms over the set; at another point, there are fireworks in the sky that I don't remember from the production at the Golden in New York. For the most part, though, it's the same show that was done on Broadway, with all the professionalism and commitment to the piece that was given to it by the original cast.

What a shame, though, that a piece with such wit and originality as this —the hilarious and catchy songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the sweet and funny parody of "Sesame Street" in Jeff Whitty's book and the creation of just the perfect tone to play it by director Jason Moore – should not reach anything like the mass audience enjoyed by Wicked. Admittedly, the target audience for Avenue Q, if it matches the demographics of its lead characters, doesn't have anything like the money available to the affluent families of the teen and 'tween girls supporting Wicked. Still, a different marketing and distribution strategy could have gotten this piece in front of a much broader audience of urban young adults and older ones who still remember and identify with that stage of life. Maybe we have to give the producers some credit for trying a different strategy with the Las Vegas run, even if it wasn't successful. The presenters of this engagement, Broadway in Chicago, have had some success recently in promoting shows in smaller venues (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Drury Lane Water Tower and The Sparrow at the Apollo). As the crowds for the show's Broadway run seem to be declining, let's hope some producers step forward to give this show a chance to develop more word-of-mouth and reach a larger audience nationally. The material is still relevant and entertaining. They'll just have to come up with another line for the joke in that closing number come next January.

Avenue Q will be performed at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Saturday, June 7. For performance times, visit Tickets are available through at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, or through Ticketmaster.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

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-- John Olson

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