San Diego Theater Review: AVENUE Q (OB Playhouse)

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by Milo Shapiro on July 24, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


In the right setting, irreverence is so jovial. Our era of thought-police and political correctness has made it delicious to pervert that which seems simple and pure solely for the sake of entertainment (The Producers and The Book of Mormon are still packing them in). Just as mighty is Avenue Q, the musical satire which centers on the denizens of a street in New York’s East Village who struggle to survive in a world that belies what they were taught by today’s culture. It’s tough to feel unique when, as the characters and their Muppet-like counterparts discover, “It Sucks to Be Me.” Even the tongue-in-cheek title implies the harsh realities for those raised to believe they could do anything: In Alphabet City, Avenue A is where southeastern Manhattan starts to get sketchy, worsening with each increasing letter; the letters stop at “D” so the fictional “Q” implies it must be really bad.

Created in the style of Sesame Street, the mockery of this chamber musical is balanced by elements of the TV classic’s wholesomeness. Within that framework, the shocking raunchiness is, ironically, easier to take in good humor. Warnings that this is an adult show surround all advertising, but in the end, well…c’mon…half of the characters are puppets. Some are sweet, some are vulgar, but most have aspects of each. Additionally charming is that, as with Sesame Street, the humans don’t react in any way to the fact that many of their friends are monsters or small, colorful creatures.

For that matter, the human characters don’t see that people are blatantly walking around manipulating their puppet friends. Unlike some Japanese puppetry, where the human is masked in black so the audience can tune them out, the puppeteers here are as big-faced and perky as the characters on their hands. This may sound like it would be a distraction, but it isn’t.

With puppetry being a rare study for actors, it’s a credit to the performers at Ocean Beach Playhouse (OBP) that they handle the puppets so adeptly while tackling lyrics, lines, blocking and dancing. Master Puppeteer Joe Fitzpatrick, Jr. and director Jennie Connard (both previously from the 2015 Coronado Playhouse production) have invested considerable effort into making sure the puppets come to life. The facial expressiveness of Trevor Johnson and Jeremy Andrew Williams (as puppet characters Nicky and Rod) serves as an emotional subtitle, enhancing the physical limitations of the puppets’ faces.

This is a show where the lyrics and playfulness matter more than pure vocal chops. While no one in particular stands out as the next American Idol, all have pleasant voices, especially in their harmony tunes like “The Money Song” and the finale “For Now.”  There’s only one song in this show that cannot be faked: protagonist Kate’s “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” her gentle, lovely song of feeling jilted by boyfriend Princeton (Ben Sutton). This ballad is so touching that it’s almost out of place in all the goofiness of this show, making it a sweet standout. Thankfully, Evelyn Sparks, puppeteer behind Kate, does it justice.

Librettist Jeff Whitty and songsmiths Jeff Marx and The Book of Mormon’s Robert Lopez beautifully blend shock value with sweetness. When characters admit to succumbing to some amount of stereotyping, their song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” allows us to acknowledge that part of ourselves which laughs secretly at things we cannot talk about in public. And it’s difficult to be put off by “The Internet Is for Porn” as the men—fuzzy and otherwise—gleefully celebrate their masturbatory habits.

The book is clever, funny, and full of twists. To give you an idea just how quirky this script is, Princeton’s superintendent is Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman (played to a tee by Taylor Henderson, also returning from the Coronado production). “Who better,” the creators wrote, “to symbolize the oh-so-special-as-a-kid/but-not-so-special-as-an-adult thing we all faced than Gary Coleman? He’s practically the poster child.”

The intimacy here compares quite favorably to huge houses like the Civic Theatre (the infamous puppet sex scene yields lots of laughter and the ability to see them so closely adds to the awkward intimacy). The one negative on this production is volume. Playing to about 100 seats, OBP doesn’t mike the actors. For most of the show, this is acceptable, but during some of the funnier moments, lines are lost as sustained audience laughter drowns the actors out. Likewise, the biggest puppet, Trekkie Monster, mostly speaks through a window where he takes up most of the space, making it a bit of a challenge to hear lyrics and lines from puppeteer Todd Sutton. As OBP uses open seating, arrive early for close seating to help offset this.

Overall, OBP has pulled off a bold, bright production at this small theater, which almost makes us want to join those who live on Avenue Q… but better to peer in on their rough world, enjoy a little “Schadenfreude” at their personal trials, and go home to someplace nicer.

photos by John Howard

Avenue Q
OB Theatre Company
OB Playhouse, 4944 Newport Ave in Ocean Beach
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on August 7, 2017
for tickets, call 619.795.9305 or visit OB Playhouse

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