It doesn't suck to be the cast of Avenue Q at Theatre Too in The Quadrangle. A year after opening the first local production of the Tony-winning puppet-centric musical, the same seven Dallas actors still have their hands up the backsides of the fuzzy felt-mericans. Their performances, brighter and funnier than last summer, are better for the long run. Audiences think so, too, still packing the 80-seat below-ground theater nightly.
"Something's coming, something good," sings Princeton, the ingénue boy-puppet handled and voiced by the always visible and super-adorable Matt Purvis. He's right. After this opening number, all about how Princeton's B.A. in English isn't worth the parchment it's printed on, the rest of the show is knockout terrific, with some sweet life lessons thrown in as a bonus.
Avenue Q is Sesame Street after dark with dirty jokes. Do not — repeat, do NOT — bring little kids to this unless you want them to experience buck nekkid, anatomically correct puppets cussing blue streaks and going through 17 positions of the Kama Sutra. One of the best tunes in the bouncy score, and it's an audience sing-along, is all about how "the Internet is for porn." With detailed descriptions. "Grab your dick and double click," sings Trekkie Monster, the filth-loving Cookie Monster-times-Chewbacca critter performed by Michael Robinson (who also designed the puppets with Pix Smith).
Yes, a show with oversized, oversexed handpuppets ran for nearly six years on Broadway and upset Wicked to win the 2004 Tony for Best Musical. You're welcome, culture.
With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and a whimsical book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q takes all the conventions of traditional hit Broadway musicals — the wish song, the love duet, songs with social commentary, patter tunes — and bites them in the ass with satire. The characters blend musical theater archetypes with some familiar ones from TV and film. It's musical theater for grown-ups whose wonder years coincided with The Wonder Years (late '80s to mid-'90s) and who may be experiencing a little bit of just-past-quarter-life angst.
Princeton, like the young hero in West Side Story who also sang "something's coming," is a good guy with lots of heart and plenty of problems. But "fresh out of college, with plenty of knowledge," Princeton has no job and no guiding purpose. He falls prey to the sinister notions of a couple of "Bad Idea Bears" that look like that scary laundry softener ursine and are puppeteered in fine fashion by Robinson and James Chandler. Princeton wallows in self-doubt, a cloth incarnation of Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
Cheering Princeton out of his gloom are his neighbors on lower Manhattan's shabby Avenue Q (T2's set design by Jac Alder is brilliantly compact and full of surprises). There's perky but hairy Kate Monster (Megan Kelly Bates, who's mastered her puppeteering skills over the past year). She dreams of opening her own school for little monsters and not having to work for the awful Miss Thistletwat anymore. Kate's rival for Princeton's affections is buxom songstress Lucy T. Slut (also voiced by Bates, like Mae West doing Mama Rose). Roommates Nicky (Chandler, sounding ever so much like Bert's pal Ernie) and Rod (Purvis again, with a different voice) would be happier if closet queen Republican banker Rod would only come out. Instead, Rod pretends to have a girlfriend in Canada: "Her name is Alberta/She lives in Vancouver/She cooks like my mother/And sucks like a Hoover."
The three non-puppet personae are Japanese psychotherapist Christmas Eve (Olivia de Guzman Emile, with a powerful belt that could sing the paint off walls), her fiancé and failed stand-up comic Brian (Chester Maple) and Gary Coleman (ever delightful M. Denise Lee, now replaced in some performances by her daughter, Traci). Yes, that Gary Coleman. In the show he's the fix-it man. And no, it's not too soon for jokes about the late actor's terrible life after Diff'rent Strokes.
"Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "It Sucks to Be Me," "Schadenfreude," "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" — the score is as infectious as whatever Lucy T. Slut's probably got. You will take the tunes home with you.
When it opened last summer, this production directed by Michael Serrecchia was good, but the actors were just starting to figure out how to animate their puppets and how to navigate around each other in T2's tiny acting space. A year later they've got it down. They're so good with the puppets now, you focus on Princeton, Kate, Trekkie and the other furries even when the actors are in full view (and they almost always are). As puppeteers, the cast has learned how to throw their energy and their voices out to the ends of their arms (Purvis and Chandler are the best at this).
Michael Robinson, acting as half the limbs on Rod and Trekkie, also has polished the nuances and comic timing of puppet body language. Watch how fast he bounces between characters, seeming to appear on different sides of the stage within milliseconds. Robinson, Chandler, Bates and Purvis ease in and out of their various puppet people with skills that only can be achieved over many, many performances.
Dallas theaters rarely experience long-running shows. Most productions here get three to five weekends and, fwoof, they are history. Meanwhile, T2's Avenue Q is making some.
(Note: As this review was going to press, T2 announced the show will close July 28. Oh, well.)
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