A beefed-up cast of fourteen terrifically talented student performers and some inspired directorial tweaks make UC Irvine’s Avenue Q the best of the five productions I’ve seen since first discovering it on Broadway a baker’s-dozen years ago.

The Robert Lopez-Jeff Marx-Jeff Whitty musical comedy smash imagines what might happen if Jim Henson’s Muppets started singing songs and teaching life lessons about adult topics like sexual orientation, racism, Internet porn, and Schadenfreude (that’s German for people taking pleasure in your pain) more relevant than ever in post-Obama America.

“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” segments brought together as a thoroughly entertaining coming-of-age story chili-peppered with salty 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 (David Šášik, manipulating a Muppets-inspired puppet as do all but four of the production’s actors), freshly graduated with a B.A. in English with no idea what to do with his life.

Fortunately for Princeton, his apartment hunting has led him from Avenue A to the far more affordable Avenue Q and a “For Rent” sign in a building supered by none other than TV’s Gary Coleman (Eriel Brown) and peopled by roommates Rod (Nick Adams) and Nicky (Jacob Ben-Shmuel and sidekick Laurence Turner), live-in lovers Brian (Mark Metzger) and Christmas Eve (Cailen Fu), sweet young thing Kate Monster (Melissa Musial), and upstairs grouch Trekkie Monster (Daniel Solomon, aided by Alyssa Corella).

In song after tuneful, clever song (music and lyrics by Lopez and Marx), we get to know these self-proclaimed losers-in-life up close and personal, and though nothing much “happens” plot-wise in Avenue Q, a night on the town does introduce the gang to cabaret skank Lucy The Slut (Abbey Workman) much to Kate Monster’s dismay and Princeton’s temporary delight.

Director Hill’s decision to nearly double Avenue Q’s number of onstage performers from Broadway’s eight to a grand total of fourteen on the Claire Trevor Theatre stage allows an additional six student actors the chance to shine, and while the original concept may have made clearer the distinction between humans (one actor per character) and puppets (themselves the characters and not the actors voicing and manipulating them), Hill’s bigger cast has the advantage of putting a distinctive human face on each puppet character. Purists may quibble, but I enjoyed the change.

Also, by making schoolteacher Mrs. Thistletwat, previously a puppet cameo, our guide and s pair of Bad Idea Bears her students, Hill not only adds one more human character to the mix, it allows the director to rethink the original production’s use of Sesame Street-style videos by giving the same “instructive” information in live form. (Again, purists may object, but I enjoyed the freshness of the change.)

In other respects, it’s Avenue Q as its original creators intended, and no complaints here because even fourteen years after its Broadway debut, AQ’s many pleasures remain as deliciously tangy as ever, particularly as brought to life by a cast so splendid (and for the most part age appropriate) that this student production proves virtually indistinguishable from the best professional stagings in town.

Šášik’s Princeton radiates boy-next-door charisma and charm opposite Musial’s cute and feisty Kate. Adams’ deliciously hysterical Rod has bromantic chemistry with Ben-Schmuel’s utterly endearing Nicky (co-puppeted by a fraternal-twinsy Turner, who gets his own mellifluous eleventh-hour voice as Ricky and Fresh-Faced Kid).

As for lead humans, Brown’s pitch-perfectly perky Gary, Metzer’s warm-and-wonderful Brian, and dance captain Fu’s delectably ditzy Christmas Eve are every bit the scene-stealers their puppet counterparts are. (Fu’s torch-songtastic “The More You Love Someone” and Musial’s tear-jerkingly gorgeous “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” are the evening’s vocal highlights.)

Featured player match star performers every step of the way, from Solomon’s big, blustery Trekkie (aided by fellow manipulator/hostess Corella) to Workman’s sizzlingly sexy Lucy to Alise Borgfedt’s tightly-wound finger-wagging Mrs. Thistletwat to Connor Marsh and Amy Tilson-Lumetta’s infectiously mischief-making Bad Idea Bears.

Jon M. Marshall’s adorably Hensonesque puppets, both single-performer “rod” and double-performer “live-hands,” share star credit with the actors who manipulate them thanks to puppet master Jonathan Kidder’s puppet-mastery, with choreographer Kelsey Jenison finding one delightful way after another to add dance to the mix.

Scenic designer Dipu Gupta’s gives Avenue Q a striking, children’s book illustration-inspired set, gorgeously lit in rich, burnished tones by Eb Madry. Ashton Montgomery’s terrific costumes range from the puppeteers’ basic black to character-perfect human wear, with special snaps to Christmas Eve’s gorgeously big-bowed wedding gown.

Musical director Dennis Castellano conducts Avenue Q’s splendid six-piece orchestra* with kudos to Andrea Allmond for her expert sound design.

Matthew Terzigni is stage manager. Cynthia Bassham is vocal/dialect coach. Amy Shine is dramaturg.

There may be other shows playing around town this week, but none are guaranteed to fill you with as much absolute bliss as Avenue Q at UCI. Too bad it’s sold out, because this is one ticket I’d unapologetically beg, borrow, or steal.

*Louis Allee, Benet Braun, Jeff Driskill, Michael Higgins, Lex Leigh, and Carlos Rivera

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UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.

–Steven Stanley
June 7, 2017
Photos: Paul R. Kennedy

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