Beyond the sleaze there’s lots to please in SU Drama’s ‘Avenue Q’
Let’s just say these puppets have been around the block a few times…
The greatest enjoyment from watching Avenue Q comes from its manner of presentation. Many of the characters in the show are puppets that look as if they walked off the set of Sesame Street. Yet while there’s a certain sophomoric joy in watching these puppets discuss adult subject matters like sexuality, pornography, and drunkenness, the real pleasure comes from the way in which puppetry is used to underscore that adult life is much more complicated than children are led to believe.
The present SU Drama production begins with Cheech Manohar, who plays the role of Brian, coming onto the stage as if he were warming up a studio audience for a live television show. In the back of the stage, dressed in black, stand the actors who will be providing voices and working the puppetry for the furry characters. This frames the play itself as a television show and allows for a seamless transition to later moments when characters break the fourth wall to directly acknowledge the audience.
The story of Avenue Q begins as Princeton, one of the human puppets, walks into a Brooklyn neighborhood in search of an affordable place to live. Princeton’s neighbors include two monster puppets: Trekkie (who is obsessed with Internet pornography) and Kate (a kindergarten teaching assistant). There’s also a pair of human puppets: Rod (an uptight, closeted investment banker with a secret crush on his roommate), and Rod’s roommate Nicky (an affable, unemployed slacker). That leaves the three human characters: Christmas Eve (a therapist whose Japanese background is evident in her thick accent), her fiancé Brian (a recently unemployed wannabe comedian) and Gary Coleman (the former child actor now reduced to the role of the superintendent of a dilapidated housing complex on Avenue Q).
As the story unwinds, Princeton learns the hard way about the complexities of modern life. His employer “downsizes” Princeton from his job before it even starts; his burgeoning relationship with Kate gets derailed by his fear of commitment; and he struggles with society’s assumptions about racial difference — both through direct discussion of race and through the metaphor of human/monster relations. Before long, Princeton gets into debt and becomes consumed by his own lack of purpose. Through this experience he nonetheless develops close relationships with his neighbors and ultimately learns to grab snippets of joy in a world that is at best disinterested, if not downright inimical, to his happiness.
Over the course of this modern coming-of-age tale, the audience is treated to some incredible vocal performances on witty and irreverent songs. Nearly all the actors in the troupe have polished theatrical voices that they used effectively throughout the performance. It should be noted that many of the characters require an affected vocal presentation from the actors, yet the actors must still sing powerfully — and on-pitch.
A perfect example of this may be found in Cole Francum’s role as Trekkie, a character whose voice may best be described as a slightly more intelligible version of the guttural grumblings of Sesame Street‘s “Cookie Monster.” Somehow, Francum manages to maintain the affectation of Trekkie Monster’s voice throughout his singing without allowing the affectation to take over the song. A less talented singer might easily have conjured up a grating and annoying vocal timbre that alienates the listener, but Francum’s delivery ends up adding a nice dimension to both the solo and ensemble numbers.
Special mention must be made of the vocal talents of Madie Polyak and Melissa Beaird. As Kate Monster, Polyak has a genuine heartfelt quality to her voice that matches her character. Her singing reaches its greatest power in the softer songs, such as Mix Tape and The More You Ruv Someone. My personal favorite was There’s a Fine, Fine Line, in which Polyak develops pathos without becoming maudlin or disrupting the overall silliness of the production.
As Lucy the Slut, the promiscuous puppet that has a brief affair with Princeton, Beaird is not called upon to deliver singing of the same caliber of emotion and complexity as that of Polyak. Still, Beaird’s delivery on Special was for me the high point of the performance. Beaird perfectly captured the breathy and smoky sounds of a blues torch singer. Who knew a pink puppet could sound so sultry?
In addition to the slower songs, Avenue Q features quite a few rollicking crowd pleasers. The rousing The Internet is for Porn had the audience cheering and laughing throughout, while the concluding For Now ended the evening on a high note that kept the audience clapping and roaring to the very end.
The songs were made even stronger by the wonderful performance of the orchestra. While the talents of “hidden” orchestras in musicals often go largely unnoticed, Felix E. Cochren Jr.’s set made the instrumentalists impossible to ignore, as the players — only partially obscured by a faux wall — remained in virtual full view for the entire show.
Unmasking the orchestra was only one small way that this production consistently forced the viewer to acknowledge the construction of the art by exposing the apparatus and resisting artifice. The complex interplay between the puppets and the actor/puppeteers dressed in black allows the audience to focus on the puppets alone, taking the listener into a fantasy realm where the puppet is the actor. To be sure, the characters onstage are neither puppets nor actors but a composite of both.
The effect here is one that is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, Jillian Wipfler and Mitchell Harrison as the Bad Idea Bears use facial expression to show excitement over the (shockingly bad) ideas that these puppets try to feed Princeton. Similarly, Beaird seductively sways her hips as she walks around the stage as Lucy the Slut.
While the musical’s conclusion largely does manage to bring resolution to most of the major conflicts, it completely ignores the issue of racial unrest it had raised. Avenue Q seems interested in critiquing racial prejudice through its critique of monster/human relations, the experiences of Japanese immigrant Christmas Eve and the song Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. Kate Monster’s school for monsters is the closest thing the conclusion provides to any closing exploration of the issue, but it is clearly insufficient.
When you connect this with the over-the-top and potentially troubling accent used by Delphi Borich in her portrayal of Christmas Eve, the text feels very uneven on this issue. (I should be clear here that this use of accent for comedy is not a choice of Borich or the Syracuse University Drama department, but a part of the original text.) Even though Christmas Eve is far from a caricature and remains a fully developed character, the stylistic use of accent for comic affect has a troubling history in drama and film. Ultimately, rather than a complicated exploration of a complex issue, Avenue Q presents a scattered series of references. Unclear about where it stands on this complicated issue, the text simply drops it.
Despite these shortcomings, I walked away from the performance having thoroughly enjoyed myself. The acting, singing, and music in the SU Drama production were a joy. Still, it may be wise to leave the young ones home: Avenue Q is a long, long way from Sesame Street.
What: Avenue Q, book by Jeff Whitty, music/lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Who: Syracuse University Drama Department, directed by Brian Cimmet
Where: Storch Theater, Syracuse Stage/Drama Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25, 2015 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through May 9
Length: About two hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $19 general admission ($17 seniors 65+ and full-time students)
Call: 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult themes, simulated sexual scenes, strong sexual language, profanity