Review: Avenue Q by Austin Theatre Project
by Brian Paul Scipione
Can You Show me How to Get to Avenue Q?
Long past are the days when musicals were solely the domain of prancing pirates and line dancing debutantes. The villains sang in baritone and the hero, a lilting tenor, as he won, lost and re-won the girl in different fantastical settings. There is the theme song, the hero’s lament, the song that exposes the girl’s conflicting feelings, the growling villain’s rant-song, and a choral effort by all the scrappy townsfolk who may help or hinder the hero. Oh yes, and a lot of love songs.
And though Avenue Q doesn’t stray too far from this formula it is part of the movement of modern musicals away from Disney-like, parentally approved, mores. Controversy and transgression has indubitably long been the territory of the dramatic arts, but singing about it joyfully has only come into the mainstream of Broadway during the last twenty years or so.
And Broadway loves it! Avenue Q won Tony Awards for best musical, best book, and best score in 2004. 2011’s Tony Award winning musical The Book of Mormon suggests that this isn’t going to change anytime too soon. Musicals have been tackling larger issues and using melody to express complex emotions since their inception. West Side Story is about gang warfare, murder, and racism. Yet it approaches these issues with kid gloves. The 1993 Tony Award winning musical Kiss of the Spider Woman was one of the first to include the grittiness and crudity that were attached to its themes on stage. In other words, it wasn’t afraid to try to make the audience cringe.
In the case of Avenue Q, this translates to onstage puppet sex. For this reason it is often billed as Sesame Street for adults. It isn’t out to change the world or hide its harsh realities from the audience. In the end it straddles the line between fun and message by introducing subjects like getting fired, being crushed by bills, and wanting companionship, and then dismissing them as things no one can do anything about.
Avenue Q debuted off Broadway in March 2003 and ran for more than 2,500 performances and enjoyed two national tours. It has been produced all over the world including the United Kingdom, Brazil, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Israel and Canada.
The storyline is simple even abrupt, Princeton,a recent college graduate with a B.A. in English, moves into the big city with wide eyes and open heart only to be jilted by his job and thrust penniless into a neighborhood full of similar misfits that include monsters, wannabe stand-up comedians, and Gary Coleman. Princeton quickly realizes (with the help of a TV monitor) that his life needs a purpose. In lieu of seeking one he immediately ignores this epiphany so that he and his new found delinquent friends can make sex, society, alcohol, and… well mostly sex jokes for the rest of the night. The story’s message is as brief and penetrating as the moral of an 80’s sitcom: I’m not OK. You’re not OK and we will just put up with everyone else on the street because we don’t have a choice.
Austin Theater Project was established in 2011 making it a relative new-comer in the ever-expanding central Texan theatre scene: in that short time it has accomplished a lot. Concentrating on professional actors and pieces of popular appeal they have a five-production run scheduled in 2013 with another five planned for 2014.
The company’s goal, according to their website, includes “providing Austin area actors and production personnel with a fair and equitable compensation for the excellent work they give to the Austin theatre community.” And certainly there is no question about the high level of quality they are striving for and attaining.
The present production which the program calls, “the largest and most complex show we have produced,” is delivered with smashing execution. The puppets are hilarious, the singing delightful, accurate and intense. The set, lighting and sound design are immaculate and the entire cast is comprised of show-stealers.
Nonetheless, not all the performers play through their puppet and some even seem to begrudge sharing face time. Which isn’t to say that the individual voices each player has crafted for their puppets aren’t distinctive, original and engrossing. I can’t help but note that Michelle Alexander’s voice is the most refined, engaging and goose-bump-inducing. Despite the hammy character she plays the power of her voice shines through.
The choice of venue is a touch unfortunate however. The A/C doesn’t quite penetrate the crowed folding chairs and many of the sight lines to the second tier of the set are obstructed. While the sound system is crystal clear, it’s unfortunate that the band is hidden away backstage making them sound almost like a recording. With the exception of the puppet copulation most of the movement seems restrained by the presence of a lot of people on a small stage.
As a theatrical experience Austin Theatre Project’s Avenue Q is first rate. It features amazing performers, spot-on musicians, great sets and a simple, amusing story brimming over with quips and zingers. For many viewers this will be the Austin theatrical experience of the year: hilarious, visually engaging and fast-paced.
1110 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX, 78704