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Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty
Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza
January 31, 2019

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Andrew Keeler Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Avenue Q is a show that advertises its shock value and irreverence. Still, as a sort of adult-oriented (not for kids) riff on Sesame Street, this Tony-winning Best Musical has a surprising amount of heart amidst all that crassness. Now onstage at the Playhouse at Westport in a locally-produced production, this latest iteration boasts a strong cast featuring a few notable local performers.

As fantastical as the setup may be–humans and puppets interacting in a grown-up version of a children’s TV show–a lot of situations are relatable, which is, I think, where Avenue Q gets a lot of its appeal. I mean, for English majors everywhere (such as yours truly), it’s easy to relate to a song called “What Can You Do With a B.A. in English?” The struggle to make one’s way in the adult world is an experience a lot of viewers can imagine, because to one degree or another, we’ve experienced that struggle, as well as the disconnect between childhood dreams and adult realities. Here, the story follows the optimistic puppet Princeton (Andrew Keeler) as he makes his way in the “real world” after college, settling in on Avenue Q and making new friends, including the idealistic Kate Monster (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), bickering roommates Nicky (Kevin O’Brien) and the fastidious Rod (also Keeler), the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (also O’Brien), and also human friends, aspiring comic Brian (Brett Ambler) and his fiancĂ©e, the clientless therapist Christmas Eve (Tori Manisco at the performance I saw, standing in for principal Grace Langford), as well as jaded former child-star Gary Coleman (Ileana Kirven), who is now the neighborhood superintendent. Amid struggles to succeed and form new relationships, there are also obstacles and temptations, represented primarily in the form of the Bad Idea Bears (O’Brien and April Strelinger) and local lounge performer Lucy the Slut (also Theby-Quinn). It’s a funny, frequently crass, occasionally surprisingly poignant show with some memorable songs, a catchy premise, and a message that manages to be both cynical and hopeful at the same time.

The staging, as usual, is colorful and whimsical, with a brightly colored set by Dunsi Dai that is somewhat reminiscent of Sesame Street, aided by some fun projections by Val Kozlenko. The intimate setting at Westport is a good setting for such a small show, as well. There are also appropriate costumes by Rissa Crozier and excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan. The puppets, conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, are in the recognized Avenue Q style, and the cast members do a good job with bringing them to life onstage.

The small ensemble is well cast, led by the always excellent Theby-Quinn in a winning performance as the determined but unlucky-in-love Kate Monster, and also as the temptress Lucy. It’s especially impressive when both characters are talking to each other, and Theby-Quinn effortlessly transitions between the two different voices. She also displays a strong singing voice on numbers like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (as Kate) and “Special” (as Lucy). Keeler is also convincing as the optimistic Princeton and the conflicted Rod, also showing off strong vocals in both roles. O’Brien brings a lot of energy and comic timing to his roles as Nicky, Trekkie, one of the Bad Idea Bears, and more, and Strelinger is impressive in a variety of roles. The human characters are well-portrayed, also, with Manisco (the understudy) impressive as Christmas Eve, who ends up counseling a lot of the characters despite not having any formal clients. Ambler is funny as Brian, and Kirven shows excellent stage presence and a great voice as Gary.

This is a fun show, even if some of the songs have dated a little in the last decade or so, and some of the raunchiness seems to be there for the sake of shock rather than really serving the story. Still, for the most part it holds up well since the last time I saw a production 10 years ago. This edition highlights the comedy but also the heart, and it makes for an entertaining evening of theatre.

Cast of Avenue Q Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport

Avenue Q is running at the Playhouse at Westport until March 3, 2019

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