Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Avenue Q
Mesa Encore Theatre

Also see Gil's review of The Man who Came to Dinner

Ryan Malikowski, Chelsea Umeda, Andrew Lipman, Laura Terry, Anne-Lise Koyabe, Nathan Spector, Katharine Boelter and Michael Shuey
The Tony winning hit musical Avenue Q uses a combination of human actors and Muppet-like puppets to focus on a group of young adults, all of whom are searching for their "purpose" in life. Originally described as "Sesame Street" for grownups, it is a show of R-rated laughs and mature situations combined with humorous songs and heartfelt life lessons that any adult would understand. Having won three Tony Awards in 2004 for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score, and still running in New York, it is easy to see why this title is so popular in regional theatres. Mesa Encore Theatre is fortunate to have hired All Puppet Players' Artistic Director Shaun Michael McNamara to direct this production. The combination of his skilled direction and the exceptional cast makes this production a humorous and charming winner.

Recent college grad Princeton finds that he can only afford an apartment way out in a seedy neighborhood on Avenue Q. The building's tenants are made up of both humans and monsters and include roommates Rod and Nicky, the interracial human couple Brian and his Japanese fiancée 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 string 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. The witty songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and the touching but funny book by Jeff Whitty perfectly combine to make this story of humans and puppets one that is both genuine, meaningful, and utterly hilarious.

Director McNamara has assembled a cast who not only excel in the required puppetry skills but also have exceptional voices and comic abilities. He has expanded the cast slightly to ten actors from the original Broadway cast of seven to allow each actor to only play one main character. At first I thought this might be a problem, with a slightly more crowded stage, but it actually works in its favor as it allows us to identify more closely with each actor and the puppet he or she is playing.

Heading up the cast are Laura Terry and Ryan Malikowski as Kate Monster and Princeton. They both have clear and strong vocals, adding a nice resonance to their songs, and Terry has an expressive face that brings a tight connection between herself and her puppet character, the warm-hearted teaching assistant Kate Monster. Malikowski's singing voice is exceptional and clear as a bell. As Rod, the uptight, in the closet, but very gay Republican, Nathan Spector brings a big dose of charm and a unique, comical voice to the buttoned up, deeply closeted and completely in denial character that allow the many times he overreacts to go from calm and sane to out and out frantic craziness but to never be too over the top.

Michael Shuey and Deryl Wayne inhibit their puppet characters with characteristics most resembling those on "Sesame Street" or "The Muppet Show," with their character voices and physical gestures and movements adding a sense of connection to their roles. As the ultra-risqué Lucy the Slut, Rachel Redleaf is a hoot with her appropriately sultry voice, sexy walk, and comical delivery of her lines. Katharine Boelter plays a few parts, including a great turn as a cranky old schoolteacher.

Anne-Lise Koyabe, Andrew Lipman, and Chelsea Umeda play the three human characters in the show. Koyabe adds a big dose of sass to the part of Gary Coleman, along with a great laugh and some high flying notes on her songs. Lipman and Umeda portray the newly engaged couple Brian and Christmas Eve and both bring a lot of laughs to the parts, with Umeda especially exceptional as the highly agitated Christmas Eve.

While the previous two puppet plays I've seen of McNamara's were spoofs of famous books and films, with plenty of ad-libbing, I have to say I am very impressed by his directorial skills. Not only does he keep his cast in line, with only a couple of small ad-libs that are perfectly in character, but he also brings out rich performances from each of them that balance the humorous and serious moments of the show. Also, considering none of the cast appear to have had any previous puppeteering experience, McNamara has done an amazing job of giving them a crash course in the required skills. MET couldn't have found a better director for this show.

Bryan Rosen's set design is pared down somewhat, but still representative of the original Broadway production. I did like how several prop pieces, which were designed by JennAfer Sanker, are multipurpose and remain on the side of the stage throughout the show as street signs, garbage, and construction debris. Susan St. John's costumes are different from previous productions of the show I've seen, which mainly clad the puppeteers in black outfits to make them less noticeable. St. John has her cast wear outfits that match or complement their puppet characters with accessories like a hair band or glasses to make the human actor align perfectly with their puppet counterpart. It works very well. McNamara, Tanner Stuff, and Michael Harris designed the colorful puppets.

With a combination of human actors and puppets and songs covering a range of topics from racism to sexuality as well as heart-felt ones about finding one's purpose, Lopez, Marx and Whitty have truly created an adult version of "Sesame Street" that lovingly mocks and portrays what a grown up version of that show would be like. But while the show has many laugh out loud, and very R-rated moments, it is also full of heart and identifiable characters and situations. Mesa Encore Theatre's production of the show has a talented cast, a gifted director and simple yet effective creative elements. It is fun, touching and heartfelt which is everything a production of Avenue Q needs to be.

Avenue Q runs through April 26th, 2015, at Mesa Encore Theatre with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at

Director: Shaun Michael McNamara
Co-Director: Tanner Stuff
Musical Directors: Debra Jo Davey & Jay Melberg
Scenic Design: Bryan Rosen
Producer/Costume Design: Susan St. John
Puppet Design & Construction: Shaun Michael McNamara, Tanner Stuff & Michael Harris Stage Manager/Props Design/Light Board Operator: JennAfer Sanker
Sound Design: John Schoenwolf
Lighting Design: Clare Burnett Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Mrs. Thistletwat / Bad Idea Bear: Katharine Boelter
Gary Coleman: Anne-Lise Koyabe
Brian: Andrew Lipman
Princeton: Ryan Malikowski
Lucy: Rachel Redleaf
Nicky / Bad Idea Bear: Michael Shuey
Rod: Nathan Spector
Kate Monster: Laura Terry
Christmas Eve: Chelsea Umeda
Trekkie Monster: Deryl Wayne

Photo: Sarah Rodgers

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix