Review: 'Avenue Q' in Fullerton lives in harsh reality
The idea of turning the PBS children's program "Sesame Street" on its head by shoving its characters into the harsh realities of life is so perversely funny, it's a wonder it didn't happen sooner than in 2003.
That's when "Avenue Q" was born. Moving from off-Broadway to Broadway, the show snagged three Tony Awards – best musical, best original score (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and best original book (Jeff Whitty).
3-D Theatricals' new staging at Plummer Auditorium starts with the rundown tenement building scenic design of Anna Louizos, one of "Avenue Q's" original set designers, and uses puppets designed and built by Rick Lyon, also from the original company.
From there, directors T.J. Dawson and C.J. Porter guide a first-rate cast skilled not just in acting, singing and dancing, but in the intricacies of puppetry as well.
The song titles alone, not to mention their inventive and exceedingly funny lyrics, speak volumes about the show's themes, such as "It Sucks to Be Me," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet Is for Porn." The show's considerable amount of profanity isn't gratuitous, but a natural outgrowth of the characters and their place in life.
The new kid (puppet) on the run-down block known as Avenue Q is Princeton (Louis Pardo), a recent college grad who simplistically, and passively, seeks his "purpose" in life.
The person (puppet) he gravitates toward is Kate Monster (Caitlin Humphreys), a kindergarten teacher's assistant who dreams of one day opening a special school for "Monsters" (furry critters like Kate who are often discriminated against).
Pardo also enacts and voices Rod, a Republican investment banker who loves Broadway musicals of the 1940s. Finicky and fussy, he's obviously gay, yet refuses to come out of the closet.
Pardo gives Rod a high-pitched voice so tight it's almost strangled – a takeoff on the familiar "Bert" voice from "Sesame Street." The "Ernie" in this case is Rod's slacker roommate Nicky (Nathan Danforth).
"Sesame Street's" Cookie Monster is spoofed by the hilariously crude and salacious Trekkie Monster (Danforth). Competing with Kate for Princeton's affection is the sultry, Mae West-like lounge singer Lucy the Slut (Humphreys).
Other puppet characters include Kate's boss, Mrs. T, played by Teya Patt as a stuffy, crusty old Britisher, and the mischievous, babyish-voiced Bad Idea Bears (Danforth and Patt).
Three of the show's characters are played by humans as humans who interact with the puppets. Christmas Eve (Camille Chen), a therapist with no clients, is engaged to Brian (Porter), a would-be standup comic with no day job, while the building's super is former child actor Gary Coleman (Angela Wildflower Polk).
Christmas Eve is a deliberate stereotype of Japanese speech, attire and hairstyle, and Chen garners laughs from her character's comedic mangling of English. Polk's Gary Coleman mocks the image of the child star as perpetually, unnaturally cheerful.
Much of the humor lies in the deliberate disconnection between the show's kiddie look and style and its pointedly adult material. Kate and Princeton get drunk, then jump into bed, going at it to a pounding rock song. Next door, Rod has a steamy fantasy about Nicky that generates soap bubbles and spinning lights.
Yet "Avenue Q" also delves into some genuinely tender and heartfelt moments such as Kate and Princeton's growing emotional (and, for a time, physical) connection. Humphreys is amazingly expressive in the soft rock number "There's a Fine, Fine Line," exposing Kate as bereft and sad, as if the puppet were a standard character in a play.
In fact, Humphreys' singing and acting transcend the most basic aspects of puppetry, and she forges two entirely divergent characterizations: the dainty, demure Kate and the shamelessly skanky Lucy.
All of the show's puppeteer actors are wonderfully expressive both as puppets and in their acting too, an obvious asset in capturing each puppet characters' personality traits. Pardo adopts entirely separate voices, mannerisms and identities for Princeton and Rod.
Pardo expresses Princeton's gentle, tentative nature – a young man almost too shy for his own good. As Nicky and Trekkie Monster, Danforth does the distinctive "Ernie" and "Cookie Monster" voices of the "Sesame Street" characters.
Dawson's choreography, which re-creates Ken Roberson's original dance steps, is aptly loose, silly and fun. Musical director David Lamoureux follows suit, working from orchestrations and arrangements by Stephen Oremus.
Louizos' set is a grimy, grungy, wonderfully dilapidated brownstone tenement building, while Lopez's mock-educational animated videos are uproarious parodies of "Sesame Street."
The synthesis of these seemingly contradictory elements yields inspired satire that uses wicked laughter to mock the unrealistic optimism of children's television shows.
When: Through July 29. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. July 22, 2 p.m. July 28
Where: Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton
How much: $28-$56 ($22 students)
Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Suitability: Adult language and content
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