Theater Reviews

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Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through Oct. 14

Prepare yourself for one of the most exciting experiences that live theater has to offer: a small, offbeat, wildly successful show that actually lives up to its hype.

That would be "Avenue Q," the unheralded off-Broadway musical with puppets that worked its way up to the major leagues of Broadway in 2004, won three Tony awards, and is now hitting tape-measure home-runs in every park it plays.

You could say that "Avenue Q" is "Sesame Street" on steroids for adults, and while partly true, that description doesn't begin to do justice to this charming and thoroughly original show. (Nor do I recall the Muppets having sex with each other.) Although the show has plenty of messages to deliver about how to get along with strangers -- in some cases, very strange strangers -- there's nothing preachy or teachy about the evening. In fact, there's a cheerful perversity to Jeff Whitty's witty book and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's clever songs that is the show's strongest selling point. Every time a sentimental cliche raises its mushy head, it's quickly turned around and given a swift kick in the pants.

Avenue Q is a low-rent neighborhood in New York City where the neighbors come in all sizes, shapes, colors and species. Princeton (handled and voiced by Robert McClure), fresh out of college, wonders what good a B.A. in English is going to do him now that he's out in the big, scary world. He rents an apartment from none other than Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), who has had to learn more than a few new survival tactics since his glory days on "Diff'rent Strokes."

Princeton is given to wondering what is his purpose in life, a theme echoed by the other characters.

Before long, Princeton is attracted to Kate Monster (irresistably played by Kelli Sawyer), a tender young kindergarten teaching assistant who lives nearby. Their bumpy love story is the dramatic spine of the evening, though there is another love story taking place between two closeted gay characters, Rod and Nicky (McClure and Christian Anderson), with complications galore.

A third couple, Brian and Christmas Eve (Cole Porter and Angela Ai), he a struggling Jewish stand-up comic and she a Japanese psychotherapist, also figure in the zany proceedings. And let's not forget Trekkie Monster (Anderson), the grouchy neighborhood pervert who spends most of his time watching porn on the Internet, or Lucy the sexpot lounge singer who gets her hooks into Princeton.

Under Jason Moore's swift, smooth and sure direction, "Avenue Q" doesn't have a single dull moment. There's always something going on that is eye-catching, ear-catching or throat-catching. The voices of the puppet characters are wonderfully distinctive and able to convey a range of emotion the human characters can't match. And the artistry of the actors as they manipulate Rick Lyon's wonderful puppets and enter into the drama is elegant and captivating.

Eventually, the question of life's purpose is answered by each character in his or her own way. It turns out that the people who live on Avenue Q, despite the distance between them, are not that different than the people who once lived -- and probably still live -- in Oklahoma or the South Pacific.

AVENUE Q
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Kevin McCollum, Robyn Goodman, Jeffrey Seller, Vineyard Theatre, The New Group
Credits:
Book: Jeff Whitty
Music and lyrics: Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx
Original concept: Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx
Director: Jason Moore
Choreographer: Ken Roberson
Scenic designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Mirena Rada
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Animation designer: Robert Lopez
Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations: Stephen Oremus
Musical director: Andrew Graham
Music coordinator: Michael Keller
Incidental music: Gary Adler
Cast:
Princeton, Rod: Robert McClure
Kate Monster, Lucy: Kelli Sawyer
Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear: Christian Anderson
Christmas Eve: Angela Ai
Gary Coleman: Carla Renata
Brian: Cole Porter
Mrs. T. Bear: Minglie Chen
Ensemble: Maggie Lakis, Seth Rettberg, Danielle K. Thomas
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