note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Ogunquit Playhouse opens its 79th season with a frolicking, sunshiny, slaphappy walk down the seedy side of the street, in Tony Award-winning musical, “Avenue Q”. Although this parody incorporates cute hand-held Sesame Street-like puppets, you’re not cavorting down Sesame Street or in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show is for adults only, but brings out the kid in everyone, stirring memories of lean, post-college days, unemployment, seeking one’s purpose in life, and banding together for a happy ending. The play also salutes children’s programs that teach life lessons, but becomes R-rated and raunchy, with designer Rick Lyon’s puppets performing explicit sex acts and spouting foul language, making it unsuitable for adolescents under 17 and eyebrow-raising for starchy senior citizens.
Created in 1998 by writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx when they were fresh out of college - like young hero, Princeton - “Avenue Q” caught on like wildfire with professional young audiences. It swept several awards on Broadway in 2004, including Tonys, and continues to enchant audiences.
The musical is an entertaining stage phenomenon,with stage monitors blasting cartoons a’ la Electric Company and Sesame Street at key points, and Anna Louizos’ original clever set, with its multi-level tenement and exterior doors and windows that reveal apartments and a bar-café. During a stroll through Manhattan, those windows and doors beam colorful images of Big Apple landmarks.
Who knew this shoddy New York City neighborhood’s cross-section of diverse people, puppets, and monsters could spout jaunty songs claiming everyone’s a little bit racist, and other outrageousness? Who’d believe this precursor neighborhood to Hell’s Kitchen could be so upbeat?
When bright-eyed Princeton, (with his BA in English literature and quest for purpose in his life) takes an apartment on Avenue Q, he lamentably sings, “It Sucks to be Me,” when he can’t land a job, but he’s bolstered by his new neighbors who join in, listing their own shortcomings.
Ogunquit boasts a multi-talented, appealing cast of actor-puppeteers,directed by Keith Andrews, who is also a deft choreographer. Music Director Ken Clifton on keyboard and three amazing musicians sound like a full orchestra, as the cast moves in comedic, precise synchronicity, switching from one character to another, while maintaining their pace at warp speed.
Exuberant Howie Michael Smith, who starred as Princeton and Republican conservative investment banker/closet gay, Rod, for more than 1,000 times on Broadway and in the national touring company, delights in every scene. Smith’s female sidekick, Ashley Eileen Bucknam, (who also performed in the national touring company) also charms as sweet Kate Monster, a kindergarten teacher’s assistant who hopes to start her own school for little monsters, and loves Princeton. Bucknam’s also Dolly Parton look-alike puppet, Lucy the Slut, and shines in both roles. However, Chris Cooke as guttural, growly Trekkie, the monster who loves porn, and Nicky, Rod’s roommate, is fantastic, his boy-next-door visage belying his earthy roles.
Jayson Elliott as aspiring comedian Brian, is an enjoyably passive foil to his fiery Japanese fiancee, Christmas Eve, (hilariously played by Rebecca Larkin, also from the national touring company). She’s a psychotherapist with a master’s and Ph.D. degree, but no clients.
Princeton also meets cuddly-looking Bad Idea Bears,(Lexie Fridell and Cooke) who sound and look adorable but are devil-making inner consciences. Bombastic Zonya Love as building superintendent /forgotten child star-adult Gary Coleman, and ensemble performers Zach Trimmer and Paul Brewster add to the fun.
Go north, and see “Avenue Q”. There’s fun around every corner.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two hour Tony Award-winning musical, book by Jeff Whitty, appearing now through June 18 at Ogunquit Playhouse, Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. For adult audiences only. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday, Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; matinees Wednesday, Thursday at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Sunday matinees and Sunday night performances vary. Tickets, $50.50-$76.50. For more information, visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or call 207-646-5511