Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Even in a More Pedestrian Locale, 'Avenue Q' Retains Its Mastery of Puppets -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Avenue Q
a local production directed by L. Walter Stearns
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru October 26

With the Mercury Theater's self-produced staging--complete with an original set of puppets created just for this production--Avenue Q is finally getting the extended run Chicago has long deserved but was foolishly deprived.

Obviously inspired by and indebted to Sesame Street but in no way officially affiliated with the historic PBS children's show, the brilliantly irreverent musical featuring occasionally raunchy puppets and an impishly tuneful score opened on Broadway in July 2003 after a brief off-Broadway run.

I saw Avenue Q in New York in May 2004, shortly before it upset Wicked for the Best New Musical Tony Award--in my eyes deservedly so (and I love Wicked as well). 

It switched back from Broadway to Off-Broadway at some point in 2009, but is still running in the Big Apple.

Usually any new show that is hugely successful on Broadway comes to Chicago on a national tour within the next year or two and--as with Wicked, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot, Motown and others--may stay for months or even years.

But until the Mercury's local production, Avenue Q--which has run virtually nonstop in New York for 11 years and counting--was only in Chicago for a total of three weeks on two separate tour visits. And not until much later than it should have been.

I am admittedly fuzzy on the process and seemingly variable timetable for a show transitioning from being presented across the country only by its original Broadway producing team to becoming licensable for regional theaters to create their own productions, but the latter seems now to be the case whereas the former was seemingly in effect until recently.

In a decision that certainly didn't work out as well as planned, hot off Avenue Q's initial Broadway success, rather than launch a typical National Tour and/or book a dedicated Chicago "sit-down" (i.e. long-term) production, the show's producers decided instead to open a longstanding (in theory) Las Vegas production at the then-new Wynn Hotel & Casino.

I made a point of seeing it in Vegas in 2005 and loved it again, as I did when a tour finally came to Chicago in 2007--for a still absurdly short two weeks--and again in 2010 for just one.

It's a shame that a review of an excellent homegrown Chicago version of what remains one of the 21st century's best musicals has to begin with a recap of Avenue Q's shortsighted business history, but in this proud theater town it's somewhat part and parcel to rue that the Q never put down lengthy roots here before.

Especially as all the reasons thousands likely would have filled a downtown theater for months on end in 2005 or 2006 still largely apply, even if the show's daring invective feels a bit dated and even docile in an age where internet snark is epidemic.

But at a time when the economy and the employment market remain in shambles for far too many--despite whatever deceptive statistics are trotted out--early Act I songs like "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" and "It Sucks to Be Me" still strike a hilarious but all-too-resonant chord.

The terrific score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx--the former going on to collaborate on The Book of Mormon and the smash Disney movie Frozen--is not only fiendishly funny, but with songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet is for Porn" and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," the lyrics make many sly and striking statements.

Even without listening to the Original Broadway Cast Album anytime recently, I knew every lyric and much of the dialogue upon catching a performance last weekend, so even if I didn't guffaw as profusely as others or in the past, I could discern that the Mercury players replicated the singing, acting and puppetry extremely well.

The show chronicles residents of the fictional Avenue Q in New York--a real one does exist--some of whom are puppets whose mouths and (partial) bodies move in unison with onstage actors/puppeteers who do the speaking and singing. But other neighborhood denizens are simply human beings, with no doppelgänger puppets involved. And some puppets need two puppeteers to operate them.

The Mercury Theatre in Chicago, just up Southport Avenue from the Music Box Theatre, isn't tiny--though just a fraction of the Broadway in Chicago theaters downtown--and multiple extensions have given Avenue Q a healthy run that will end on October 26.

But though longtime Chicago theater director and current Mercury artistic director L. Walter Stearns likely factored in the local sparsity of Avenue Q before mounting this production--which he directs--the quality of this rendition is even more estimable given that such a long run wasn't assured when it opened in the spring.

While I--or you--could be forgiven for imagining that some of Avenue Q's fine points might be diminished on a street other than Broadway, Randolph or the like, and without the original puppets created by Rick Lyon, that isn't the case.

The source material may not feel quite as fresh, or even revolutionary, as it once did, but the production values at the Mercury Theater are first-rate all the way. If you've never seen Avenue Q, or even if you have, you should genuinely love this version without any disclaimers. (Find tickets through the box office here or check on commonly-available discounts through HotTix.)

With the note that Avenue Q actually works far better in a smaller theater than a mammoth one, the scenic design by Alan Donahue--essentially consisting of a series of 3-flats--compares sufficiently to anything I remember on Broadway, Vegas or downtown Chicago stages, and slyly incorporates custom-made video accoutrements that don't shortchange the original ones.

The cast is terrific throughout in all phases of their on-stage duties--including acting and singing while imbuing the puppets with congruent expressions--and with Stearns having commissioned puppets from a company affiliated with the late, great Jim Henson (of Muppets fame), all those "on hand" are Broadway-caliber.

Though Avenue Q is largely-known and oft-promoted for being rather risque in its language and themes, not only is there a whole lot of intelligence in its irreverence, but there's also a lot of heart.

So while I knew all the songs, jokes, gags, etc.--including the continued characterization of a comedic TV actor who in real-life passed away since Avenue Q was created--what especially makes the Mercury's take work anew is how well the show's love story is handled.

I never like to reveal too much, but will share that in both operating and personalizing puppets named Princeton and Kate Monster who quickly become romantically-inclined, Jackson Evans and Leah Morrow are really superb.

Both are strong of voice, but also demonstrably good in creating empathy for their puppet and human selves. I'd be lying to suggest I specifically remember the nuances of previous performers who have "played" Kate, but it's hard to envision anyone doing it more gracefully and engagingly than Morrow.

Without implying that Evans or others in the cast aren't also deft at this, she seemed to perfectly echo every one of Kate Monster's movements and emotions with her own (and/or vice-versa).

At the end of this century's first decade, I declared Avenue Q my second favorite new musical of those 10 years (behind only The Producers); that remains true, and I don't think anything has overtaken it since 2010.

So even if the impudence has lost just a bit of punch a good bit down the road, and even as it has moved to less-famed theatrical neighborhoods, Avenue Q is still a joy to revisit.

The Mercury Theater makes for a fine address at which to catch an exemplary and reasonably-priced staging that does justice to the original, while proving that previous decisions to delay and limit the show's local delivery clearly never made much street sense.

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