Review: Visit the “Adult Sesame Street” with a 20th Anniversary Production of Avenue Q
Have you ever wanted to witness a Muppet make the beast with two backs? Do a deep dive into getting “felt up”? Learn the history of the monster race? Then Avenue Q is your ticket. The Tony Award-winning, occasionally bawdy, musical comedy is back, 20 years after its Broadway debut, in the comfortable North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, in a delightful Music Theater Works production. People and puppets perform side-by-side in this sweet coming-of-age story set on an up-and-coming New York City street, under direction and choreography by Chris Pazdernik, with music direction by Eugene Dizon and puppetry training by Kristi Martens.
Princeton puppet (operated by visible Jimmy Hogan) shows up on Avenue Q to figure out what he can do with his BA in English, like so many of us. He starts by asking “what’s my purpose,” and then sings “it sucks to be me.” There, in front of the bright apartment-front set (designed by Ben Lipinski, complete with “Laugh-In”-style window openings for snide asides), he meets earnest teacher Kate Monster (Brandy Miller), loose Lucy (Melissa Crabtree), and two couples.
Christmas Eve (Mai Hartwich) gets engaged to Brian (Thomas E. Squires), while Rod (Adam Ross Brody) and Nicky (Andres J. DeLeon) try to figure out their Ernie and Bert situation. All residents are served by the wisecracking building super (and former TV star) Gary Coleman (Whitney Dottery). Several other puppets are personified, including the Bad Idea Bears, an angel-and-devil-on-the shoulder-type pair, who encourage Princeton to make some poor, yet typical, 20-something decisions.
When the play first debuted, it felt quite edgy, often referred to as the “adult Sesame Street.” Now, the book (by Jeff Whitty), plus music and lyrics (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx), have become a time capsule of kinder, less polarized times. Songs like “If You Were Gay” and “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada” hearken back to more measured coming-out stories. Others, like “The Internet is for Porn” have become rather redundant (while still hilarious), since we now know that cyberspace was explicitly created for porn. The song “Schadenfreude” (deriving pleasure from others’ pain) was novel two decades ago; now, it’s the daily mantra for repressive political parties and gaslighting news outlets. The show’s clever “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” tune has Frankenstein-ed into a real-world “lots of people are really racist” today.
Yet the musical’s uplifting spirit remains untarnished, and every actor sings lovely tones and harmonies, accompanied by an excellent offstage, six-person orchestra. They also utilize many corners of the shallow space, including the aisles, side balcony, and in between two clever video banks stage right and left (designed by David Sajewich), which provide city factoids. Bring some loose change or bills to donate to the Season of Concern charity during “The Money Song.”
Music Theater Works’ Avenue Q runs through April 2, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets are $39-$106 (as well as half-price tickets for ages 25 and under), and are also available at 847-673-6300.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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