Review: ‘Avenue Q’ proves to be right up New Village Arts’ alley
It was a case of the upstart scoring an upset in 2004 when the scrappy, happily profane “Avenue Q” snagged the coveted Tony Award for best musical, sweeping away the witches of “Wicked.”
Fourteen years later, of course, “Wicked” continues to run strong on Broadway, while “Avenue Q” — whose original New York production closed back in 2009 — has settled for a less glamorous off-Broadway reboot.
But if that seems a sign that time and changing tastes have turned “Avenue Q” into some kind of cultural cul de sac, New Village Arts Theatre is here to prove very much otherwise.
The Carlsbad company has opened its own winning revival of the puppet-centric musical comedy, one that preserves the show’s irreverence while smartly tweaking a few elements to 2018 tastes.
For all its loose-limbed, “Sesame Street”-after-dark charm, “Avenue Q” is a deceptively tricky piece of work to stage, with its mix of human characters and puppets, and actors who voice and operate those puppets in full view onstage.
In other words, there’s a whole lot of stage business involved — with a full two dozen musical numbers to boot.
But director A.J. Knox’s crisp, well-cast and well-rehearsed production brings just the right breezy feel to this piece about the dreamers and misfits and fuzzy monsters who populate a downscale New York neighborhood.
Not that I necessarily read this stuff, but the Wikipedia entry for “Avenue Q” observes with apparently unintentional hilarity that the show “addresses adult themes that may be deemed inappropriate for younger children, such as racism, pornography, homosexuality and schadenfreude.”
No, not schadenfreude! That German term for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune is actually the title of an “Avenue Q” song, performed by the characters Gary Coleman (yes, the late actor, played here by a snappily funny Cashae Monya) and the newly homeless puppet Nicky (one of two portrayed by the admirably versatile Tony Houck, whose voice talents are a huge boost to the production).
Those two serve as key secondary characters in a show that centers on Princeton, a starry-eyed college grad who’s about to get a rude introduction to the real world as he arrives to rent an apartment on Avenue Q and try to find a job (“What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?”).
Among the first neighbors he meets is Rod, a closeted lover of old Broadway shows; both characters are performed and voiced by the gifted (and very busy) Zackary Scot Wolfe, whose work is really the bedrock of the show.
Princeton soon finds a spark with Kate Monster (Gerilyn Brault, a strong singer and natural comedic actor), while Houck steps in to portray the lecherous Trekkie Monster, whose signature song is “The Internet is for Porn.”
Ciarlene Coleman smartly brings the stereotyping down a notch or two as the Japanese-born character Christmas Eve, and has a standout turn on the gleefully subversive ensemble number, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
Steven Freitas is a likable goofball as slacker Brian, Christmas Eve’s mate, while Melissa Fernandes adds you-go-gal empowerment (and sultry vocals) to the very assertive Lucy the Slut — whose nickname, we’re told, stands for “sexually liberated, unapologetic temptress.”
And Chris Bona and Jasmine January earn some of the best laughs as the Bad Idea Bears; January’s squeaky vocal affectations are a particularly good comic touch.
Music director Nina Gilbert’s (unseen) band swings, and Christopher Scott Murillo’s impressive brick-facade set is complemented by Chris Renda’s lighting. Elisa Benzoni’s splashy costumes, Melanie Chen Cole’s sound and Jenna Ingrassia-Knox’s choreography also blend well (and Lynne Jennings clearly earned her keep as puppet coach).
A few elements of the show — the Gary Coleman thread among them — do feel dated. And compared with co-creator Robert Lopez’s scabrously funny follow-up, “The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q” can seem almost quaint.
Still, NVA has managed to make it a place worth finding your way to again.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Schedule varies; check with theater.) Through July 1.
Where: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad.
Tickets: $43-$46 (discounts available)
Phone: (760) 433-3245
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