Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of Nathan Gunn: Flying Solo
After graduating from college, an optimistic young man named Princeton (Zackary Scot Wolfe) moves to Avenue Q, a neighborhood in New York City. He meets other young adult puppets, such as the single kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (Gerilyn Brault), the closeted investment banker Rod (Wolfe), Rod's friendly roommate Nicky (Tony Houck), and the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Houck). Humans also live in the building, and they include the struggling comedian Brian (Steven Freitas), his therapist girlfriend Christmas Eve (Ciarlene Coleman), and even Gary Coleman (Cashae Monya). Soon after moving in, Princeton becomes eager to find his purpose in life. As he tries to figure this out, he and the other puppets and humans learn, and share lessons about, racism, love, generosity and "Schadenfreude."
Musical numbers by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, and the book by Jeff Whitty, cleverly develop characters without ignoring big laughs. Songs such as "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?," "The More You Ruv Someone," and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" have lyrics that reveal a great deal about the characters. Beyond the jokes, it's the authentic treatment of adulthood that keeps the tale relevant. Whitty's dialogue highlights the struggles and mistakes people make when trying to be independent and financially stable. Choices that Princeton, Rod and Kate make aren't always the right ones, yet they are ones that most audiences will find relatable.
Knox's mainstage directorial debut is consistently tongue-in-cheek, from the sometimes childlike way the puppets move to the evenhanded way he treats New York City. He uses the stage to present a metropolis that can be welcoming and stressful. Crew members' efforts, including Melanie Chen Cole's audio and projections, Christopher Scott Murilllo's set, Chris Renda's lighting and Jenna Ingrassia-Knox's choreography, pay tribute to the much more family friendly "Sesame Street." The orchestra, featuring music director/conductor/keyboardist Nina Gilbert, guitarist Tim Fullerton, and drummer/percussionist Nobuko Kemmotsu, perform tunes in a style similar to the music used on the educational series. Besides honoring the music on the classic TV show, they get to play in a variety of genres ranging from rock and funk to traditional musical ballads.
The main performers are hilarious, singing the often-ironic songs and embodying the different residents they play. Credit should go to puppet coach Lynne Jennings, for working with an ensemble that is not typically known for puppetry. Wolfe, Houck, Melissa Fernandes and Chris Bona each play two characters and give their roles strong and funny personalities. Rounding out the puppeteers are Brault, who can be both humorously down to earth and touching as Kate, and Jasmine January, who, along with Bona, gets some of the funniest lines as the troublemaking Bad Idea Bears. Human residents are equally interesting. Monya is upbeat and entertainingly cynical as Coleman, while Freitas and Ciarlene Coleman have instant chemistry onstage portraying Brian and Christmas Eve. As good as they are together, it took about one song for Freitas' portrayal of Brian to fully click in an early performance. Freitas plays Brian in such a happy-go-lucky manner from the outset that it is hard to believe him when he sings "It Sucks to Be Me." After that number, his enthusiasm becomes a natural fit for the hopeful out-of-work "humorist."
What continues to add depth to Avenue Q is the manner in which the writers handle Princeton's quest to find out the meaning of his life. Marx, Lopez and Whitty make his intentions seem noble, yet they show that Princeton's objective leads to personal problems. By not simplifying his journey or emotional arc, the plot is actually significantly deeper than many theatregoers might expect. Besides Princeton's quest for growth, the issues that Kate, Rod, Nicky and others face are equally complex. The care Marx, Lopez and Whitty give them keeps the narrative from turning into a straightforward spoof of "Sesame Street." Knox realizes this, which allows his interpretation to be a thoughtful and very fun night in Carlsbad.
Avenue Q, through July 1, 2018, at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village CA. Performances Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $43.00 and can be purchased online at www.newvillagearts.org or by phone at 760-433-3245.