Avenue Q is Delightful, But Not Aging Well

Published at TheSunbreak.com.

Balagan’s Avenue Q (Photo: Galen Wicks)

I’m not one for musicals famous just because they made it on Broadway. I could live quite happily if I was assured I’d never again be subjected to music from Les MiserablesSouth Pacific, or Legally Blonde: The Musical. I do have a few exceptions to my general dislike, though, and one of them is Avenue Q (through December 16 at the Ericksontickets).

When Avenue Q premiered in 2003 it was one of those musicals that nodded to the absurdity of the genre, simultaneously splashing around in the cheesy end of the pool and singing about screaming while banging. This is all tied together with an association with yours and my favorite instructional program, Sesame Street. Who didn’t want the simplicity of friendly puppets and a diverse neighborhood walking you through what the hell to do after graduating college?

But this Balagan Theatre production is showing its age–or I am. Is anyone really shocked to learn that people use the internet to watch porn? (More shocking were the updates to the song “Mixtape,” wherein the cast passes a CD and says, “Check the second disc,” instead of Side B.) These things were small but noticeable, especially with Hulu commercials reminding me that I can now bump my phone into someone else’s to exchange a sexually significant song.

Worse still was “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” written in a time before it was understood that reverse racism doesn’t exist. The song was met with far fewer laughs than the ones I remember from my days listening to it with friends in college, though the cast performed it well. And of course, the Gary Coleman references fall even flatter to a generation that only vaguely remembers Diff’rent Strokes.

However, under the direction of Eric Ankrim the show still elicits joy in and uproarious laughter from those that allow it to overtake them. Ankrim makes several bold choices in his mounting of the silly production, the most notable of which is a cast of puppeteers dressed as the character they’re performing, rather than the traditional drab grays and blacks meant to focus attention on the puppets. Successful in some ways, I still found myself drawn to the faces of actors who were clearly better actors than they were puppeteers (but I don’t think the costumes had anything to do with that).

The most outstanding puppeteers were Brian Lange, who plays the loveable and straight Nicky, and Justin Huertas as the hopelessly closeted Rod. The Bert and Ernie of the bunch, they were at times the most compelling characters to watch. And though the role was small, Rob Scherzer as the porn addict, Trekkie Monster, had some of the best puppet-y movements of the evening.

Where the puppeting skills lacked, however, the singing never did. If I’m the only one who overly identifies with “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” I’ll eat your cat (I don’t have a cat). Sung by the pitch-perfect Kirsten DeLohr Helland (Kate Monster), it’s one of the few songs in a show full of cheapish, but still funny laughs, that’s whole-heartedly vulnerable. (Although, from where I was sitting, Kate Monster didn’t look furry. Anyone who loves Grover like I do knows monsters are furry.) And Kate Jaeger’s Lucy the Slut is the best Jessica-Rabbit-esqe sultry I’ve heard in a long, long time.

Diana Huey as one of two walking ethnic punchlines held her own and brought some brilliance in acknowledging shit white people say in front of her, but she’s helped by having some depth written into her lines and a relationship that actually captivates. Rashawn Scott as Gary Coleman was not as lucky, but did what she could with the flattest role and at least got to belt it out with “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).”

Sidebar: Not too long ago, when I was a fresh-faced transplant from Tennessee I was introduced to Balagan Theatre with The Jammer, an amazing play about roller derby converting me to an instant fan. Then I saw their production of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog at ACT Theatre, which was a highlight of my Joss Whedon fangirl existence. But then, something changed.

Some dark times settled over our theatre metropolis. Theatres were closing, missions were changing, and Balagan, “won” (is it really winning when the managing company doesn’t ask anyone else to compete for it?) the bid to take over the Erickson Theatre. Since then they’ve decided to traverse the Broadway road and become a theatre that seemingly prizes sell-out shows from some faraway place called New York over locally-grown material. Of course, since that’s where the arts money lives, who can blame them entirely?

Avenue Q was a fun night. The performances were tight, music was great, and I laughed a lot. But because it opened right after Annex Theatre closed two highly successful puppet musicals (one of which was exclusively about sex and was deliciously raunchy), one can’t help but compare how those new musicals were frankly more entertaining than one that has started collecting dust.

And because my relationship with Balagan started from a place of wonder at The Jammer, I have to ask, What happend to you Balagan? Are the days of innovative and original shows going to forever be tossed aside in favor of  musicals that we already saw pass through here at the Paramount? Or, are you, like Princeton, just trying to find your purpose? I’ll forgive you for now, since you’ll be doing Hedwig next, but please think about it before next season so I don’t have to make a Gyote reference about how you were a theatre I used to know.

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