Everything you’ve heard about “Avenue Q” is true. It’s a musical comedy with a puppet cast and presented in a style recognizable to anyone raised on “Sesame Street.” However, unlike the ongoing saga of Bert and Ernie, “Avenue Q” is for adults only, as the puppets (and a handful of human co-stars) are gleefully foul mouthed. Despite the ample profanity and a few hilariously vulgar sequences, “Avenue Q” is so much more than a show with puppets talking dirty.
It’s also a justly celebrated, Tony-award winning satire of not only the microcosm of a “Sesame Street”-like universe but the ability of humankind, as awful as we can be, to endure and face yet another day. There’s something here to offend absolutely everyone (this is a good thing) but, truth be told, “Avenue Q” is alarmingly sweet. In the hands of director David Belew, a fantastic cast and the gifted production artists at the ProArts Theater in Kihei, this production is surprisingly moving, expertly accomplished and explosively funny.
The story: Princeton (played by Logan Jacob Heller) moves into an apartment on Avenue Q, run by none other than the still kinda-famous Gary Coleman (played by Barron Burton). Among the other apartment dwellers are Rod (also played by Heller), a bookish Republican carrying what he believes to be a bombshell revelation. Then there’s Rod’s roommate, Nicky (played by Ally Shore), and Trekkie Monster (also played by Shore), a friendly creature with his own not-so-hidden secret and Kate Monster (played by Kathryn Holtkamp), a sweet substitute teacher who is an actual monster. In addition to Coleman, the humans include Brian, a struggling stand-up comic (played by Kiegan Otterson), and Christmas Eve, Brian’s feisty fiancée (played by Lina Krueger). I almost forgot my favorite characters, the Bad Idea Bears (played by Shore and Marsi Smith), the impish, adorable and demonic creatures who prey on the other character’s vulnerabilities. Finally, there’s Kate Monster’s boss, who is hysterical but I can’t put her name in print, so let’s just move on.
The cast appears more than up to the unique and considerable challenge of performing and singing onstage while committing to the demanding puppet maneuvering. The entire ensemble should be singled out for what they do. I’ll start with Smith- note how gracefully she aides another performer and still gets huge laughs as a Bad Idea Bear. Shore is a riot whether you’re watching the Trekkie Monster or her facial expressions while embodying the role. Heller is terrific, bringing the needed center and comic fire to the lead protagonist and Holtkamp is stunning in the way she can make Kate Monster such a tender soul. Otterson is quite funny, especially when you consider he’s playing the human equivalent of Fozzie Bear (though Fozzie’s material was never this blue).
Burton and Krueger are playing roles with potential for racial caricature but manage to perform a thespian jiu-jitsu move, by avoiding easy stereotyping and making their roles uniquely quirky and real. Krueger, one of Maui’s most nuanced and intelligent performers, finds some universal truths in her role that makes the humor sting. Burton is pretty spectacular in the way he takes a bonkers concept (Gary Coleman has fallen on hard times and is now a landlord) and gets laughs by taking it as far as it could possibly go.
While the actors are fully visible onstage as they perform, it’s not the Sheri Lewis-like approach of pretending not to speak while the puppets do the talking. The actors offer fully dialed in performances, both as they are and using the puppets an extension of their characterization(s). Note what Holtkamp does when she’s on stage and voicing two different characters- it’s not schtick, she’s actually giving life to two very different roles. I found myself watching the actors as often as I marveled at their clever puppet manipulations. This is a hard show to do and this cast kills it.
I intentionally haven’t mentioned any of the songs; the titles themselves are so amusing, I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises. However, I will report that, during Rod’s musical ode to his faraway girlfriend, my wife and I were laughing so hard, I was fearful for our spleens.
Belew brings out the best in his performers (both real and furry) and realizes the show’s full potential. Likewise, the sets by Jamie Tait and music direction/orchestration by Vania Jerome and Richard Cetterli skillfully recreate the show’s vision for the ProArts Theater. Special mention goes to Stephanie Garrett, an “Avenue Q” vet who was brought on as “Puppet Guru” coach and puppet maker; her valuable contribution and Belew’s careful encouragement bring out wonders from both the actors and their onstage characters.
In most cases, I typically avoid observing the audience around me, but a show like this makes gawking impossible to avoid. The opening night crowd was, at different moments, beside themselves with laughter, shock and incredulity, sometimes all at once. It was fun to note who was totally on board with watching full-on puppet sex (yes, that’s a real thing in this show) and who was laughing through their horror. Another thing about that opening night performance- it was sold out. I suspect this won’t be the only time that happens.
Productions this good (and mercilessly funny) tend to perform like blockbusters. If you’re planning on seeing this, stop reading and get your tickets immediately. On the other hand, if the notion of spending your evening watching highly profane, sexually enthusiastic puppets work through their issues sounds like a new low in theater, then this review has been brought to you by the letters F and U.
Avenue Q runs until May 5th at the ProArts Playhouse (located at Azeka Marketplace next to Taco Bell). Tickets are available at www.proartsmaui.com or 808-463-6550.