Avenue Q has arrived on Broadway—at 202 N. Broadway in Santa Ana, that is—making for just about the best musical theater news in town, particularly since the Theatre Out downscaling of the Tony-winning Broadway smash is just about as perfectly staged as an intimate-theater musical can be.


“Sesame Street For Adults” is only one way to sum up this ingenious blend of Jim Hensonesque puppets, live actors, and melodious songs brought together in a thoroughly entertaining coming-of-age story chili-peppered with R-rated language and at least one scene of puppet-on-puppet sex.

Jeff Whitty’s Tony-winning book first introduces us to a dapper young chap named Princeton (Danny Moreno, manipulating his character’s hand puppet as do all but three of the show’s actors), freshly graduated with a B.A. in English and no idea what to do with his life after “four years of college and plenty of knowledge have earned me this useless degree.”

Fortunately for Princeton, his apartment hunting has led him from Avenue A to the far more affordable Avenue Q and a promising “For Rent” sign in a building supered by none other than TV’s Gary Coleman (Ebony Fay) and peopled by roommates Rod (Spencer D. Blair) and Nicky (Jason M. Hammond), live-in lovers Brian (Nick McGee) and Christmas Eve (Rachelle Rose Clark), sweet young thing Kate Monster (Kalinda Gray), and upstairs grouch Trekkie Monster (Topher Mauerhan)—all of the above vying for suckiest life in “It Sucks To Be Me.”

Brian’s been laid off, his dreams of becoming a famous late-night TV comedian put on indefinite hold, and as for Kate Monster, despite having a love of music and art (along with a gigantic heart), the furry young thing can’t help asking herself the age-old question “Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” and answering it with “Fuck! It sucks to be me!” Nicky complains about Rod’s anal-compulsive need to iron his underwear as the latter gripes about finding Nicky’s clothes strewn everywhere, making “that very small apartment we share a hell.” Japanese-born therapist Christmas Eve has two Master’s Degrees in social work (but no clients), an unemployed fiancé, and way too many bills to pay. As for Gary Coleman, well how would you like to make a ton of money that gets stolen by your folks and then have to suffer one stranger after another stopping to ask you, “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”


In song after tuneful, clever song (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx), we get to know these self-proclaimed losers-in-life up close and personal. Nicky (and just about everyone else on the avenue) is convinced that uptight Republican Rod is a repressed closet case, and won’t he just do them all a favor and come out? Kate is almost immediately smitten by new-kid-in-town Princeton, particularly when he makes her “A Mix Tape.” Meanwhile, Christmas Eve nags hubby Brian in an accent so sing-song that it would be offensive in any show other than Avenue Q, whose characters celebrate in song that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” or as Christmas Eve puts it, “a rittle bit lacest.”

Not much “happens” plot-wise in Avenue Q, though a night on the town does introduce the gang to cabaret skank Lucy The Slut (Mia Chiaromonte), much to Kate Monster’s dismay and Princeton’s temporary delight, Princeton and Lucy’s one-nighter leading to so some major life changes in Act Two.

Mostly, Avenue Q unfolds as a series of humorous life lessons taught and learned in song, à la Sesame Street, though with considerably saltier language and themes, ditties with titles like “The Internet Is For Porn,” “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” and “Schadenfreude,” German for “happiness at the misfortune of others!”, e.g. “watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken, or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in!”

Avenue Q ran for over 2500 performances on Broadway, and a National Tour brought that production to the Ahmanson Theatre in 2007, but truth be told, the Lopez-Marx-Whitty musical was too intimate a show even for Broadway’s relatively small 800-seat John Golden Theatre. At about one-twentieth that size, Santa Ana’s Empire Theatre fits Q to a T, Theatre Out’s oh-so-talented young cast giving their Broadway/National Tour predecessors a run for their money under Shaun McNamara’s bright, savvy direction.

Performances are all-around terrific, beginning with Moreno’s boy-next-door charm as Princeton, Gray’s perky adorableness as Kate Monster, Blair’s delightful flamboyance as Rod, Hammond’s good-natured warmth as Nicky, Mauerhan’s big-dude bluster as Trekkie Monster, and Chiaromonte’s sexy sizzle as Lucy The Slut, all of the above manipulating their handheld counterparts with agility and pizzazz. Equal praise can be heaped upon the three actors whose characters come to life-sized life without puppetary assistance—spunky, sassy Fay as Gary Coleman, abundantly amiable McGee as Brian, and deliciously kooky Clark stealing every scene she’s in as zippy, zingy Christmas Eve. Vivacious Amanda Knight completes the cast as snooty kindergarten teacher/puppet Mrs. Thistletwat and as one of a pair of foul-mouthed-&-funny Bad Idea Bears, her male counterpart brought to snappy life by Hammond.

McNamara and Michael Harris have designed Theatre Out’s Avenue Q puppets “from the ground up,” and though smaller than their Broadway counterparts, they are every bit as expressive, particularly as manipulated by cast members who deserve major kudos for becoming adept puppeteers in record time.

Musical director Stephen Amundson has the entire cast singing and harmonizing quite splendidly to prerecorded tracks, though the latter do occasionally drown out the show’s deserve-to-be-heard lyrics as performed by un-amped voices.

Avenue Q at Theatre Out benefits from Alexis Stansfield’s lively choreography, though “musical staging” might be a better term since there’s not a whole lot of dancing per se. Scenic designers David C. Carnevale and Joey Baital have created (and Baital constructed) a simple but effective brownstone neighborhood set. The show’s terrific costumes are co-designed by Kristen McNamara (puppets) and Carnevale (non-puppets), the living, breathing cast wearing garb that complements their puppet counterparts’. Kudos go too to Joy Bice’s lighting and Zach Rosing and Ben Phillippe’s video design (though there are considerably fewer Sesame Street-style video segments here than in the Broadway original). Stansfield is stage manager.

I fell in love with Avenue Q from my first listen to the Original Cast Recording back in 2003, and seeing it in New York the following year only added to my adoration for this truly unique musical comedy treat. Theatre Out’s intimate staging proves every bit as entertaining as its big-stage Broadway incarnation—with the added advantage of having Princeton, Kate Monster, Rod and Nicky, and all the rest almost close enough to touch. There’s truly no better street to be on this winter than Avenue Q.

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
January 14, 2012
Photos: Stephen Rack

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