Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Avenue Q" Rises Again

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the final preview of the current Off-Broadway transfer of the Tony-winning smash hit Avenue Q was my first time ever seeing the show. There was really no excuse for my not having seen it before, as its been around for six and a half years. But sometimes even the good ones fall through the cracks - I didn't see Hairspray until its penultimate performance. Anyway, this little musical that could, which famously upset juggernaut blockbuster Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony, played 2,534 performances at the John Golden Theatre and closed up shop on September 13.

However, in the best closing notice coup since Roger Berlind announced the revival of Kiss Me Kate would remain open after 9/11, producer Kevin McCollum stunned all in the audience and onstage with the news that the show would reopen at New World Stages the following month. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, et al, it's stunning that they were able to keep this secret so airtight.

But now the show, a Sesame Street style spoof on post-collegiate life in NY, has reopened at New World Stages 3, comprised of many Avenue Q alumni from the Broadway run and national tour. So while I don't have much perspective of how the show played on Broadway, but I can't help but feel that the more intimate the space the better. (I entered the Golden for the first time two weeks ago, and it felt even a trifle too big for even Oleanna and it's one of the smallest Broadway houses).

So how did I miss this show? Well, I'll admit. I get very excited for an original cast and try to see a show when it's fresh and new. My first experiences on Broadway involved tired companies of juggernaut musicals that felt more like death warmed over than exciting live theatre (Miss Saigon and Cats). It wasn't until my 3rd experience, with the revival of the aforementioned Kiss Me Kate (and its original cast), that I felt this post-show rush that can be best described as floating ten feet in the air. Ever since, I'm wary of any production once the originals leave - particularly in a musical.

Well, I am sorry I waited for so long. The show is what it is - a ribald, irreverent but timely pastiche. Its explorations of life in New York City aren't exactly going to erase your memories of Company, but the creators use the familiar techniques employed by children's shows to create an endearingly satiric portrait of adulthood. So instead of learning our ABCs and 123s, we are treated to such Tony-winning musical gems (courtesy of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet is for Porn," and "Schadenfreude." There are the instructional animated films, the requisite marginally older & wiser humans, and inevitably the life lessons ("There's a Fine, Fine Line" and "For Now"). What truly impressed me was the strength of the Tony-winning book by Jeff Whitty, which is much sharper in focus than many of the other self-referential musicals that have come after Avenue Q.

The engaging cast is comprised of Q alums, many of whom were involved in the final Broadway company. Seth Rettberg leads the charge as Princeton & Rod and illuminates the stage with offbeat charm. I can't decide which is funnier: his delivery of "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada" or the ensemble's outrageous pregnant pause that greets it. Sassy beltress Anika Larsen as Kate Monster & Lucy T. Slut is a petite powerhouse, with an especially showstopping delivery of "Special." Cullen R. Titmas scores big as Trekkie Monster and Nicky. Nicholas Kohn and the irrepressible Sala Iwamatsu comprise the incongruous couple of Brian and Christmas Eve.

However, for whatever reason, my favorite is Maggie Lakis, who mostly provides silent support as an extra puppeteer but scores the biggest laughs of the evening as one of the Bad Idea Bears. Whenever Ms. Lakis is onstage, I couldn't help but watch her. Not that she steals focus, mind you. She is just that fascinating a presence in a unsung performance ripe with humor and stagecraft.

There were two unexpectedly personal moments for me in the show. One was Princeton's opening "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" I actually picked up one of those some years back and am still asking myself that question on a regular basis. The other, and one a bit more poignant, was "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," a reflective moment where the ensemble contemplates what were arguably the best years of their lives. I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Jimmy mid-song and said "That was my weekend." I was at my alma mater for an alumni weekend reception hosted by the Theatre Arts department, my other area of study (talk about a win-win...)

While greeting old friends and faculty, I had the chance to mingle with bright, optimistic and engaged theatre students who were anywhere from five to eight years younger than I am now. (I'm 26). In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't that long ago, but we (Roxie and myself) started pondering when did we get so old, and why do these kids look so young? In the six years since the show opened (and closed and reopened), life for the post-bachelor's student has grown increasingly more difficult and how strange that most of the themes pertaining to the show are still relevant to most of the people I know under the age of 30. This show got me thinking about myself, where I'm going and what I am doing with myself. And all they had to do was use puppets. Not many shows have that sort of effect on me, the most recent I can think of being the short-lived Reasons to Be Pretty.

Kudos to the house staff at New World Stages, who go the extra mile to make sure that there are no cell phone interruptions during the show. (Including reminding someone in the press about the NYC statute against cell phone use inside a theatre). This was also my first experience with the in-seat drink service, something in which I might partake should I go back again (which, yes, I am already considering). Though, I wondered during the audience collection if alcohol was a factor in inspiring an audience member down front to throw a Nutri Grain bar at the cast...

The move to off-Broadway was surprising, but it makes sense. The show is built for intimacy, and it is more cost effective for the producers to run it in a 499 seat house outside of Broadway. (And apparently The 39 Steps may follow suit...? Who knew?) It's also nice to see that the show is becoming a theatrical institution for the city. As long as there are fresh-faced college grads tackling the world head on, there will always be a place for Avenue Q. Especially in New York.

2 comments:

SarahB said...

I guess I prefer my NYC life to be more like Company. I do not identify w/ the Ave Q characters in the least - I found them to be tacky, ungrateful, boring, whiners.

Linda said...

I'm glad you finally got a chance to see Avenue Q. It remains one of my favorite musicals. Though I hate to be a snob about original casts, I did feel that Avenue Q was perfectly cast. I was wary about revisiting it off Broadway, but was amazed at how well it has held up. I did miss the original cast, but Anika Larsen was terrific.