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Written by Perry S. Luhn
It’s always fun to go to a play that features people you know. Especially very talented people. And it’s a great joy to either see something you’re very familiar with, making it easy to catch the subtle nuances you may have overlooked before. But sometimes it’s very nice to be totally surprised by something completely new and different. This feeling is the one many Van Wert Civic Theatre patrons may experience as they discover the current VWCT production, “Avenue Q”.
“Avenue Q” is a musical that takes a lot of chances; stretches the envelope. You will see things on stage which will challenge your ability to suspend disbelief. It may encourage you to dig deep to keep the story and message foremost in your conscience while disbelief threatens to force its way in.
Originally, inspired by a book by Jeff Whitty and scored and scripted by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, this musical started as an idea for a television series. “Avenue Q” was quickly adapted for the stage and, after a brief stint off-Broadway, made its Broadway debut in 2003. The unique ideas presented in a simplistic, yet complicated manner, soon made fans and ran for a very-respectable 2,534 performances over six years.
The play itself features Muppet-like characters who say and do the most outrageous things. And they do them without benefit of the usual staging for puppets. The actors “playing” the characters roam the stage with them voicing them and giving them movement and personality. You can’t miss the actors, but you are soon drawn into the story and the Avenue Q residents’ personalities.
The cast of Sesame Street wannabes bring their insecurities, and dreams to life in a way that is often blunt, profane and shocking. This is definitely not Sesame Street! This story explores the coming-of-age many youth must endure, including racism, love and one’s purpose in life. The story is sometimes a bit off-putting, perhaps edgy, but throughout, the writers have allowed the actors to infuse vitality and personality into their characters.
I must admit I did not find this script appealing. To each his own. But I knew that I would be entertained and delighted by the efforts of this talented cast and crew. Directed by Jerry Zimmerman, assisted by Linda McClure, the cast featured crafty veterans of the stage. Zimmerman gives himself one of the most important parts, because he knows he can make his “Princeton” spring to life. But he also has pros such as Dan Basinger, Roger Rex, Kristin Lee, Nick McClellan and Mark Sampson to work with. All these stars shone brightly. I expected them to knock me out and they delivered. This cast transitioned smoothly from start to finish. The music, directed by Dee Fisher, was smooth and unobtrusive and highly professional. The voices were powerful when they needed to be and muted when it made sense.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the surprise performance that stood out for me. Perhaps it was that I had not seen her before. Perhaps it was because I may have expected less from the character “Kate Monster” than I got. I was very impressed with both by Jamie Allen’s range and spot on pitch. She is a young talent VWCT should encourage. I was only disappointed when she sang a trio with Zimmerman and Rex, “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” The three made a nice picture, and harmonized almost perfectly. I did wish, however, that Allen’s character were not so far upstage. I felt at times she was fighting to match the intensity of the others’ powerful voices.
There is one “guest celebrity” portrayed. I won’t give him away. But you can go and see for yourself. Cedric Reeder plays “Gary” with enthusiasm and an often beautiful voice. He got off to a very slow start, losing the orchestra and his pitch, but gradually slid into his role gracefully. I think as the run of the show progresses he will have a little more fun with his character.
I had concerns about the supposedly straight-backed, Midwestern, aging audience at VWCT. Is this show too much controversy? Too many crude references and words? Zimmerman et al have found a way to subtly tone down the New York hip. In addition, I believe that because it’s puppets, the storm is softened. At any rate, this audience loved the show and so did I. Were we offended? Not so much. I told a cast member following the production, “Hated the script, loved your show.” I came away with a greater appreciation for the Avenue Q story. This group made a believer out of this audience member. If you get the chance, let this cast of stars work their magic on you, too.
“Avenue Q” continues through Sunday. Call the box office at 419-238-9689 for reservations and visit vwct.org for more information.