Think of Sesame Street. Think of how you were told that as an individual you were special and with the right guidance, an upbeat attitude, some community spirit and perhaps a sunny day, nothing was impossible; you could do anything. Now flip it. Now you’re on Avenue Q, and guess what; it sucks to be you.
The three-time Tony Award winner returns to the valley; more specifically, at Phoenix Theatre where it opened first in 2008, then again in 2014. Now it’s back, and judging from the reaction of a packed matinee house on its opening weekend, it will almost certainly return for a fourth visit sometime down the road. It’s an audience favorite, and for good reason; this is a top-notch musical production with an assured ensemble that knows exactly what it’s doing. Without a single lull in its two hour running time, it is so much fun.
The first time Avenue Q ran at the Phoenix, it was presented on the main stage. This third outing is now at the smaller black box Hormel Theatre next door where its intimate setting and its stadium-styled seating guarantee a perfect view no matter where you sit. And for a show like Avenue Q where Robert Kovach’s excellent scenic design of the cramped, run down apartments on the avenue – a close recreation of the original Broadway set with some modifications – fills the stage from wing to wing, you can’t help but sense you’re right there with the cast. By default, you connect. Your life may not suck as much as theirs, but at Hormel you’re always just one step away from joining them. For a show such as Avenue Q, it could not work better.
The cast consists of eight performers: three characters are human, five, puppeteers. For those unfamiliar with the setup, humans and puppets interact on the avenue in the same way they do on Sesame Street but with one important difference: The puppeteers are seen operating their characters. This is not ventriloquism. Actor and puppet are essentially one, so when the humans refer to the character, it’s the puppet they’re talking to; the puppeteer is ignored.
To divert audience attention as much as possible, the puppeteers are dressed in black; a contrast to the color of the puppets, and even though we see the operators in plain sight, the illusion is always there, such is the often astonishing work of the puppeteers. By facial expressions and body movements, the puppeteers are extensions of the character. Once you’re settled with the presentation and approach, you rarely notice the join. And when you do glance from puppet to puppeteer, it’s to savor the professionalism of the performer. They’re not just operators, they’re actors.
The majority of players were in previous Q productions. With training while working with puppets from the original Broadway designer, Rick Lyon – himself a Sesame Street muppeteer – and the Lyon Puppets, it all goes to help explain why everyone appears so professionally accomplished. Toby Yatso, Emily Mulligan Ferry, David Errigo Jr., Laurie Trygg and newcomer to Phoenix Theatre, Caitlin Dhuse are simply superb. And it’s not just their actions or expressions; it’s also their voice work. Often one operator voices two characters in the same conversation, yet the illusion is never broken. In a show such as Avenue Q it would be unfair to rank one above the other. It’s an ensemble, and the ensemble works.
The same for the three human characters. Pete Good as the wanna-be comedian, Brian; Erin Kei as Brian’s soon-to-be missus, the wonderfully named Christmas Eve; plus (the great) Yolanda London as the avenue’s live-in janitor, Gary Coleman – yes, the Gary Coleman – are wonderfully cast and good in equal measure. Plus, after his outstanding work delivering the recent Phoenix Theatre production of Evita, director/choreographer Robert Kolby Harper brings that same, distinctive sense of fluid, choreographed movement to Avenue Q.
I gush, I know, but what a delight it is to take pleasure in witnessing a production as surprisingly adept and as continually laugh-out-loud funny as this, and how often does a show create so many genuine belly laughs between the songs, and sometimes during them? On this Avenue Q, Yatso and co deserve that standing-o. And don’t forget: Adults Only.
Pictures courtesy of Matt Chesin/Phoenix Theatre
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website.