Theater Review: 'Avenue Q' stares down our destinies with smirk
October 13, 2012
An interesting dynamic forms when college students flock to see a show that features songs with titles such as “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” Our willingness – even desire – to witness a puppet-driven telling of our own forthcoming doom would seem strange if not for the fact that we’re actually supposed to laugh at it. The miracle of “Avenue Q” is that by framing the financial struggles, vocational hopelessness and overarching difficulty of post-college subsistence in the starkest of terms, it allows us to feel kind of okay with them. And ever the overachiever, it manages to impart a few lessons on racism, homosexuality and schadenfreude along the way.
Case in point: It’s a really good thing Northwestern’s Arts Alliance and producer Dylan Pager did this show. Under the capable direction of Zoe Maltby, who works wonders with the tight quarters of the Shanley Pavilion, this “Q” is funny, inventive and most vitally, filled with pathos. The puppets are a joy to behold, but the actors who maneuver them are far more startling: They’re feeling everything their characters are. Jonny Stein creates a relatable protagonist in wide-eyed graduate Princeton; we share his pain as he finds himself besieged by the unexpected challenges of adulthood. Pat Beecher, in the role of Nicky, pulls off a flawless impersonation of Ernie from "Sesame Street," and the humans of the cast – Japanese stereotype Christmas Eve (Daphne Kim), failed comedian Brian (Jordan Johnson), and former child star/Avenue Q landlord Gary Coleman (Drew Tildon) – lend frequently hysterical support.
I do have to single out three particular performances. Scott Wolf, wild behind the eyes, is hilarious in the role of the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster. Jack Mitchell, as the closeted gay Republican Rod, is sympathetic in totally unexpected ways. He’s also manically funny, never more so than in the painful number “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.” But most remarkable is Amelia Hefferon, who, with her sad Amy Sedaris-like smile, is nothing short of outstanding as Princeton’s big-dreaming romantic opposite Kate Monster. If it’s difficult to imagine how a character named Kate Monster could very nearly rip out your heartstrings, that’s because few actresses could pull such a feat. Hefferon does, however, and she’s as good as anyone in the Broadway cast.
The puppets and costumes themselves look terrific, as does the scene design by Jack Eidson. It should be noted: “Avenue Q,” with its spatial constraints and dangerous potential to turn plainly cartoonish, is not an easy show to do. The cast and crew have done some exceptional work here, ensuring that the production feels as professional as it is entertaining. Despite its tough realities and vulgar exterior, “Q” is a deeply heartfelt show, and the company at Arts Alliance has done a beautiful job of piecing together its many ingredients. That it’s staged on a college campus – the very precursor to the chapter of life it depicts – gives this iteration a brilliant little twist.