DOMA Theatre Company presents its strongest production to date with the first L.A.-area intimate staging of Avenue Q, Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty’s 2004 Tony-winning Best Musical, brought to fresh new life by director extraordinaire Richard Israel and an ever-so-talented young cast.

 Avenue Q imagines what might happen if puppet characters like those you or your kids grew up watching on Sesame Street started singing songs and teaching life lessons about adult topics, things like sexual orientation, racism, Internet porn, and Schadenfreude (that’s German for people taking pleasure in your pain).

“Sesame Street For Adults” is just one way to sum up this ingenious blend of fuzzy-faced puppets, live human actors, melodious songs, and “instructional” video segments brought together in a thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly heartwarming coming-of-age story chili-peppered with R-rated language and at least one scene of puppet-on-puppet sex.

 Whitty’s Tony-winning book first introduces us to a dapper young chap named Princeton (Chris Kauffmann, manipulating a Jim Henson-esque 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 (Benai Boyd) and peopled by roommates Rod (Kauffmann playing an additional role as do several other cast members) and Nicky (Mark Whitten), live-in lovers Brian (Chris Kerrigan) and Christmas Eve (Janelle Dote), sweet young thing Kate Monster (Danielle Judovits), and upstairs grouch Trekkie Monster (Whitten)—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 (Tony-winning music and lyrics by Lopez and 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 (Judovits), much to Kate Monster’s dismay and Princeton’s delight.

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 “watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken, or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in!”

 Part of what makes Avenue Q special is its juxtaposition of of human characters alongside puppet characters, the latter group manipulated and voiced by black-clad actor/puppeteers playing several different roles each. Judovits, for example, voices and manipulates both Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut, puppets which occasionally get manipulated by Jill-Of-All-Trades Libby Letlow, in order to allow both Kate and Lucy to be onstage at the same time, with Judovits continuing to voice both. Boyd, Dote, and Kerrigan, on the other hand, are Gary, Christmas Eve, and Brian, and are costumed as the characters they play. Got that?

DOMA scored a major coup in getting four-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year Israel to direct Avenue Q, fresh from the smash hit The Full Monty. As for his hand-picked quartet of performer-puppeteers, having seen the Original Broadway Cast, I can assure you that their DOMA counterparts turn out to be every bit the equal of the New York originals. Judovits, an exciting discovery this past summer when Avenue Q entertained Simi Valley, is once again a vivacious charmer as Kate and Lucy, a performance highlighted by her delightfully perky “It Sucks To Be Me” and a sensational rendition of Act One’s power-punch finale, “There’s A Fine, Fine Line.” Kauffmann and Whitten make stellar L.A.-stage debuts in a pair of performances that succeed in recreating their characters’ signature Broadway vocal patterns all the while making Nicky, Princeton, Rod, and Trekkie Monster very much their own colorful creations.

 In addition, Whitten and puppet coach Letlow steal scenes with every Bad Idea Bears entrance, and Letlow gives Mrs. Thistletwat a memorable Noo Yawk accent. As for the puppets themselves, they are Original Broadway Cast member Rick Lyon’s Sesame Street-esque original designs.

As the humans, Boyd makes for a spunky, feisty Gary, Dote a very funny Christmas Eve (with some superduper power pipes just made for belting out “The More You Ruv Someone”), and Kerrigan a shaggy-haired, slackerific Brian.

If anything sets apart DOMA’s Avenue Q from other AQs I’ve seen, it’s the intimacy of the Met Theatre’s 99-seat space combined with a stage area large enough to accommodate scenic designer Staci Walters’ excellent two-story set and give actors plenty of space to move to Angela Todaro’s lively choreography.

Vocal performances could hardly be better under the musical direction of Chris Raymond, who also plays keyboards in Avenue Q’s impeccable six-piece onstage band: Antonio Dangond on keyboard, Ian Roller on reeds, Molly Miller on guitar and banjo, Antonio Rodrigo on bass, and Martin Diller on drums.

 Haleh Risdana’s quite original costumes, David Crawford’s crystal clear sound design/mixing, and Hallie Baran’s multiple props are all topnotch, as is Johnny Ryman’s vivid lighting design.

Amanda Lawson, Stacey Cortez, and Lauren Wemischner are scenic artists, Dean Wright assistant lighting designer and light board operator, and Sheiva Khalily projection designer.

Avenue Q is produced by Dolf Ramos and Mike Abramson. Marco Gomez is executive producer. Danielle DeMasters is production manager and Timothy Miller assistant production manager. Jason Henderson is technical director. Nicholas Acciani is stage manager.

Parents of younger kids are hereby forewarned. Avenue Q gets an R-rating for raunch, so leave preteens at home with the babysitter and some age-appropriate DVDs. Anyone offended by the F-word and/or puppet sex should probably opt for the nearest Rodgers And Hammerstein musical. For the rest of you, Avenue Q at the Met Theatre is the place to be—providing you can wangle tickets during its already almost completely sold-out run.

DOMA Theatre Co. @ The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 9, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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