Opening on Broadway in 2003, Avenue Q features a book by Jeff Whitty (Bring it On: The Musical) and score by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx (The Book of Mormon, Disney’s Frozen). The sleeper hit surprised Tony® viewers by beating out mega-musical Wicked for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.
Given its puppeteering demands, few local theatres have attempted the show. Locally, only the Community Theatre of Greensboro and Hot Summer Nights/Theatre Raleigh have done so. That is, until Raleigh Little Theatre premiered its staging–its final of the 2016-2017 season–last weekend in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre
Directed by Jesse R. Gephart, Avenue Q is often referred to as “Sesame Street for Adults.” The puppets, lessons, animation, immigrant neighbors, and a celebrity guest are all here; the cursing, nude puppets, and a song about internet porn are extra. While some of the commentary on race and sexuality feels dated, the show’s overall messages remain relevant–some shockingly so.
This production lightens the ensemble’s puppeteering burden, rearranging some roles and opting for an eleven-member company rather than the requisite seven. Puppeteer and designer Kevin Roberge leads the way, with fabrication and repair by Kerry Falkanger. The designs are Broadway-inspired, but differ enough to be RLT-specific, the only misstep being the unclear design of a surprise character near the play’s end.
Rarely does a show require an actor be a quadruple threat. The RLT cast have become competent puppeteers with a handful achieving exceptional mastery. Actors occasionally blocked their faces too much, and puppets need to be reminded to “cheat out” toward the audience, but the integration of human and puppet is extremely impressive, especially with such limited training time.
Promising newcomer Aaron Boles gives one of the show’s strongest vocal, acting, and puppeteering performances as Princeton, while Freddy Perkins oozes energy and charm as Nicky, with hand support from an in-sync Matthew Sheaffer, who plays a Bad Idea Bear alongside bundle-of-energy Mary Bain.
Aubrey Comperatore masterfully performs the brazen, disheveled Trekkie Monster, with occasional hand support from Bain. Comperatore needs more amplification if we are to fully appreciate her hilarious vocal work. Bradley Waelbroeck is an endearing Rod and Brett Yates is a hilarious, though sometimes unintelligible hen, Mrs. T. He is also a charming, though too relaxed, Brian.
Though actor and puppet could not be more different, Lydia D. Kinton flawlessly sings and puppeteers the acidic Lucy. Brandi Parker and Alex Matsuo are vocal powerhouses, but also appeared relaxed on Saturday. Though not appearing or sounding particularly Japanese, Matsuo’s Christmas Eve still earns big laughs, as does Parker for her portrayal of Gary Coleman.
But the show ultimately belongs to Brett Williams, whose intelligent work as Kate Monster captures the spirit of Avenue Q–she plays the truth rather than the goof. She is simultaneously heartbreaking and riotous, with serious vocal chops. Williams’s performance is one of the triangle’s finest this season.
Kat Randle’s animations are colorful and lively while costume designers Jenny Mitchell and Vicki Olson have opted to keep puppeteers in gray, encouraging focus on the puppets.
The set–a street in an outer borough of New York City–is designed by Duncan Jenner and Miyuki Su, who maximize space horizontally and vertically, with hidden compartments and a masterfully painted faux-concrete sidewalk. Lighting by Cailen Waddell coheres well with the set, costumes, and puppets, but occasionally proved too dim–at least from the balcony.
Under the musical direction of Katherine Anderson, the vocal ensemble have achieved terrific harmonic unity and Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations are ebullient thanks to Anderson on keys, Keith Lewis on bass, Jordan Hubbard on guitar, Tim Wall on percussion, and Gregg Gelb on reeds, all seated atop the two-story apartment building.
Sound designer Todd Houseknecht has quite a task before him, with myriad sound effects, a live band, and nearly a dozen microphones to mix live. While it may have only affected those of us in the balcony, Saturday night’s first act was marred by some hushed or perhaps silent microphones; and several key lines were missed, particularly those of the Bad News Bears. However, all was in working order for act two.
I wish this production had transcended the source material rather than leaning on it, but an enthusiastic sold-out Saturday crowd suggested that, despite its imperfections, Raleigh Little Theatre’s Avenue Q is wickedly funny and, at times, even cathartic. Impressive writing and composition are amplified by excellent puppeteering and singing from a dedicated ensemble standing before a perfectly detailed set. RLT has added an extra weekend of performances (June 22-25) thanks to big sales, so snag your tickets–and for God’s sake call a babysitter–as soon as possible.
The Sunday, June 11, performance at 3 p.m. will be audio-described for those with visual disabilities.
SECOND OPINION: May 18 Q-Notes mini-preview by Lainey Millen: https://goqnotes.com/50702/triangle-youth-gaiety-avenue-q/; IndyWeek mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/avenue-q/Event?oid=6300495
Raleigh Little Theatre presents AVENUE Q at 8 p.m. Jun. 8-10, 15-17, and 22-24.
3 p.m. Jun. 11, 18, and 25 in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $28 ($24 students and seniors 62+).
BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Sd000000PLlJdEAL
SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/avenue-q/; 2017-18 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.
PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.
ACCESSIBILITY: All performances are wheelchair accessible. Assistive listening devices are available for all performances. A hearing loop has also been installed in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre. Audio description for those with visual disabilities. The Sunday, June 11, performance at 3pm will be audio-described.
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.