At the Mercury Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Mix “Sesame Street” with a fearlessly funny helping of very adult humor and the result is “Avenue Q,” one of the really unique stage musicals of the new millennium. The Mercury Theater blew away local audiences with its local premiere of the show in 2014 and the company is back with a summer-long revival that is just as good, high praise indeed.
“Avenue Q” is populated with comical Muppet-like characters resembling Fozzie Bear, the Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie among others. But the kiddies who watched “Sesame Street” never heard their heroes sing songs like “It Sucks to be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, and “The Internet Is for Porn.”
Avenue Q is an unfashionable address “in an outer borough of New York City” that is the home of a collection of misfits and losers trying to get a life before they grow out of their 20’s. The show is mostly a series of high-decibel musical numbers that gradually coalesce into commentaries of highly stressed romantic relationships of various gender and ethnic combinations.
The puppet characters are operated on stage by an ensemble of skilled handlers who sing and talk as they manipulate the mouths and body parts of their puppets. It’s the same principle that has made “The Lion King” a mega hit.
Initially, the viewer may be inclined pay more attention to the handlers, but before long the puppets take over as credible individuals. Indeed, it’s amazing how these critters, with their sewn-on eyes, fabric upper bodies, and flapping mouths come alive. Much of the delight in of “Avenue Q” resides in the original Jim Henson characters startling the audience with R rated songs and chat.
The musical retains its “Sesame Street” tone of wide-eyed innocence and breeziness. Videos periodically teach vocabulary and counting in the “Sesame Street” pre school style, though the lessons take surprising paths, like illustrating the difference between “one nightstand” and “one night stand,” with graphic animation portraying the latter term. A scene of passionate lovemaking on-stage between a pair of drunken puppets briefly turns the evening into a hilarious stag show.
While an air of good-natured raunchiness and political incorrectness dominates the show, the creators do slip in a few moral lessons in the “Sesame Street” manner, like promoting tolerance for people who may be different. The show ends awash in good feeling, with the major characters happily paired off, no matter what their ethnic or sexual orientation.
Along with the familiar Muppet characters, the show injects a couple of fresh folks that add to the edgy looniness of the production. There is a Japanese lady named Christmas Eve for no discernible reason. A black actor plays Gary Coleman, the former child TV star who scores comic points with references to the financial disasters that brought the real Coleman down to a has-been at the age of 15 (in the show, he’s a janitor in one of the street’s rundown apartments).
The nine-member ensemble is irresistibly ingratiating and multi-talented, six of them operating their puppets with realism and dexterity. First among equals is Leah Morrow, a veteran of the 2014 version, a wide-eyed charmer who plays Kate Monster. Morrow has a terrific singing voice (like the rest of her colleagues) and delivers a depth of acting that actually coaxes poignant moments out of the comic melee.
Also returning from the 2014 production is Jackson Evans as Princeton, a young man bogged down in a life that sucks and doesn’t look to get any better. Princeton is going out into the world armed with a who-cares bachelor’s degree in English literature and his prospects are not pleasing. The third 2014 veteran is Dan Smeriglio, who deftly plays a bunch of contrasting characters.
Equally glowing words can be written about the newcomers to the revival. Let the recitation of their names represent total admiration for their work—Audrey Billings, Matthew Miles, David S. Robbins, Christian Siebert, and John Winston. At my performance Stephanie Wohar replaced Stephanie Herman and she was tremendous in the tricky role of the sluttish Lucy.
The artistic brain trust is largely a carryover from the 2014 production. L. Walter Stearns returns as director, orchestrating performances of tremendous energy. The show starts off at full tilt and the cast rarely takes its foot off the comic gas pedal until the final blackout.
Eugene Dizon again is the music direction. The offstage small band conducted by Linda Madonia provides terrific high-volume support. Kevin Bellie again is the choreographer, Rachel Boylan the costume designer, and Alan Donahue the scenic designer. Huge props go to Russ Walko for his puppet designs and Rick Lyon, credited as puppetry coach. Dustin Derry designed the lighting and Carl Wahlstrom the sound plan.
Not to be lost in the ribbons of praise are the book by Jeff Whitty and the music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez. The lyrics are a continuous feast of wit and surprise. Lopez also was a creator of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway and the score for the film hit “Frozen.” Talk about someone at the top of his profession!
“Avenue Q” has lost none of its fresh comic glow since its 2014 run. There is a bit of updating in the book but the show is basically a replica of what kept us in stitches four years ago. The blend of singing, acting, and puppetry remains wondrous, thanks in no small part to the gleeful infusions of vulgarity and bad taste (which still underscore some basic truths about human nature). What a singular and exhilarating playgoing experience!
The show gets a rating of.
“Avenue Q” runs through November 4 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8.00 p.m. Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $65. Call 773 325 1700 or visit www. MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
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