Since it first premiered in 2003, the hot-button topics of the puppet-based musical, Avenue Q, seem to have only become hotter and hotter. Racism, homophobia, even post-graduate, millennial strife seem to have deepened in the 15 years since the production first took critics and audiences by storm. Even more than a decade old, however, Avenue Q has aged well. Look no further than Mercury Theater’s revival (they also staged the musical in 2014) and you’ll see why.
The story is a familiar one: Princeton (Jackson Evans, back from 2014), a recent graduate fresh-faced and armed with his B.A. in English, sets out to live on his own and discover himself. He rents an apartment from Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, played hysterically by David S. Robbins) in a disheveled neighborhood in New York–Avenue Q. Here, he befriends the colorful residents: kindergarten teaching assistant, Kate Monster (Leah Morrow); polar opposite roommates Nicky (Dan Smeriglio) and Rod (Christian Siebert); therapist Christmas Eve (Audrey J. Billings) and her unemployed fiance, Brian (Matthew Miles); and porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Jonah D. Winston). As he searches for his purpose he encounters a host of millennial struggles and learns some lessons along the way.
Avenue Q’s book and lyrics provide tons of comic fodder for the performers, and each actor makes bold choices in creating their character. As Princeton and Kate, Evans and Morrow are immediately likeable. This helps you quickly invest in their budding relationship, a major crux of the plot. Each other actor imbues their puppet with a similarly winsome spark. This charisma is also present in the human characters. In the five times I’ve seen Avenue Q, never before have I been so enthralled by the character of Gary Coleman; Robbins makes tons of fresh choices with this character in a way that really energizes his role in the story.
The design of Avenue Q is equally impressive, featuring a set by Alan Donahue that doesn’t stray too far from typical productions and has enough detail to still look great close-up. Its specificity–in texture and detail–help bring the world of the musical to life, as do the show’s well-designed puppets. Video design from Max Maxin IV harkens back to the children’s television of the ’80s and ’90s and keeps transitions flowing smoothly.
Both in content and execution, Avenue Q is often likened to Sesame Street for adults. Indeed, one of the joys of watching the show is how universal its themes are; puppetry trainer Rick Lyon (whose puppetry career spans both Sesame Street and the original Broadway production) discussed in an interview with Third Coast Review how he appreciated Avenue Q’s ability to deliver such messages to an older audience, much the same way that Sesame Street instills important life lessons for its younger viewers. That universality even extends to the musical’s handling of thornier topics, which has aged surprisingly well when considering the massive shifts in the way we discuss these issues. All in all, it’s Avenue Q’s lasting message–that “everything in life is only for now”–that seems most appropriate for today’s audiences.
Avenue Q runs through September 9 at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport. Performances are Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 5pm and 8:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Sunday evening performances at 7:30pm will be added July 22. Tickets are $35-$65 and are available online, by phone at 773-325-1700, or at the box office. For an additional $25 per person, audience members can upgrade with a Post-Show Backstage Experience including a brief backstage tour, puppetry demonstration, and Avenue Q souvenir.
Avenue Q may not be appropriate for young children because it addresses issues like sex, drinking and surfing the web for porn. Parents should use their discretion based on the maturity level of their children.