Encore Michigan

Farmers Alley tees up ‘Avenue Q’

Review July 24, 2019 Bridgette Redman

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–Avenue Q earned its fame not just because it was on the naughty side—an adult Sesame Street in which puppets swear and have explicit sex—but because it was, like its heroine, Kate Monster, “pretty damn smart.”

Now playing at Farmer’s Alley in Kalamazoo, the 16-year-old musical has lost none of its edge and is still as clever and risqué as ever. Granted, today’s 20-somethings may not get why its so funny that Gary Coleman of Different Strokes is the superintendent of the apartments on Avenue Q, but it still works.

Perhaps that is why, under the direction of Robert Weiner, the role of Gary Coleman is played by a male actor rather than a female actor as was traditional in the original productions. In fact, in these days when we are more trans-sensitive, it is possible that Weiner made that choice so that we didn’t find humor simply in the idea of a woman playing a man. Is it inherently funny for a biological woman to present as a man?

At any rate, Joriah Kwame was convincingly humorous as Gary Coleman, bringing the right amount of bemused resignation, skirting around bitterness without ever indulging in it. Kwame makes Coleman intriguing and sympathetic.

Harrison Bryan and Cat Greenfield led the cast as talented puppeteers. Bryan was Princeton and Rod while Greenfield was Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut. They were both expert at switching in and out of the puppets and hiding their mouths when necessary so that they could hold conversations with themselves when needed.

They also made sure they were always supporting the emotions of their puppets so you could look back and forth between the puppets and their faces and enjoy new layers of characterization.

Bryan was especially impressive in creating two very different sounding voices for Rod and Princeton. Rod had an almost nasally quality to his voice that Bryan was able to maintain even while singing.

Teresa Attridge brought a sensitivity to Christmas Eve, a character often played over the top. While she still had the thick accent and domineering personality, Attridge brought her down a few levels, making her more human and thus more interesting.

Her fiancé, Brian, played by Greg Laux, is everyone’s buddy and there is real chemistry between him and Attridge that makes the relationship engaging and gives more punch to Christmas Eve’s second act song, “The More You Ruv Someone.”

Winning the award for the cutest, most adorable puppets on stage are the Bad Idea Bears, whom Bran Panse and Sam Slottow play with great, high-pitched glee as they work hard at getting Princeton and Kate to make bad decisions. The duo also get their exercise running about and providing puppetry support to such characters as Nicky and Trekkie Monster—both of whom are richly and deeply voiced by Stephen Anthony Grey.

It’s an industrious ensemble that has harmonious comic timing, a must for a show like “Avenue Q” that relies on its ribald humor and more than a little shock. But this cast understands that “Avenue Q” isn’t just about shocking the audience. It’s an intelligent show that speaks to all those who bought into the American dream only to find that times had changed and it’s not a big, bright, beautiful world.

It’s a show that early on sings “It Sucks to Be Me” and rolls into “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.” There are no traditional love songs in this musical, even though there are multiple romantic story lines. The closest we get to a love song is “Fantasies Come True,” a song that is immediately shattered with the bitter truth that fantasies in fact, do not come true. Christmas Eve has it best when she sings that the more you love someone, the more you wishing them dead. Under the musical direction of Lori Hatfield, each of these songs bring intelligent meaning to the show and are never sung just for shock value.

While it feels nihilistic, it is a musical that spoke volumes to Generation X. For while the songs may tempt one to be bitter, instead, they make one laugh, shrug and by the end accept that all of this is only “for now” and will someday change.

Farmer’s Alley never skimps on the technical side of their shows and they didn’t start doing so with “Avenue Q.” Scenic Designer W. Douglas Blickie evokes a worn-down, aged Sesame Street whose residents aren’t so eager to make things shine.  There is a large screen that is frequently used to add to the PBS feel, though its contents are much more R-rated.

Greenfield is the puppet captain and her bio boasts of lots of puppet experience with Disney, Jim Henson and others. She’s assisted by Mary Fletcher, a “puppet wrangler,” whom one imagines helped with the many costume changes the puppets had to do.

Nicole Peckens put all of the puppeteers in stage black and then added contrast by having the human characters in bright pastels and loud patterns to make them stand out.

“Avenue Q” remains a fun show that challenges its audience to think about self-acceptance, racism, love, careers, and finding one’s purpose. Farmer’s Alley takes on all of the show’s inherent challenges and makes it look fun and easy.

Week of 9/16/2019

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