Street Theatre Company has developed a reputation for interesting show choices, including its concert series, which has featured Chess, Ragtime and Tommy. The latest mainstage production follows that positive trend: Nashville's first homegrown staging of Avenue Q, a delightfully subversive musical that serves up off-kilter views on modern mores — portrayed in the style of Sesame Street.
That means topics such as prostitution, homosexuality, racism and pornography come at us in witty songs driven by a lilting tunefulness and music-hall charm akin to what Jim Henson might have done with his Muppets. Yet even though it lampoons the kid-friendly melodies of children's television, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's Tony-winning score has everything from well-crafted pop balladry to upbeat showstoppers.
In her STC debut, director Martha Wilkinson encourages a freewheeling approach to the humor and ribaldry. As her cast of seven cavorts in front of designer Andy Bleiler's cheerily low-rent streetscape, we're almost always heartily entertained — not least by the European-style hand-and-rod puppets manipulated with confidence by the very busy ensemble.
According to Wilkinson, the famous Avenue Q puppets aren't necessarily available along with the show rights. So for expedience, STC ordered generic puppets online, then engaged the services of Brian Hull and Mary Tanner Bailey of Nashville Public Library's Wishing Chair Productions to oversee design modifications. Hull and Bailey also assisted in puppet training with the actors, and the results are splendid all the way around.
Librettist Jeff Whitty's story concerns city dwellers — both human and puppet — and their struggles to attain identity, find careers and maintain financial stability. But personal stuff keeps getting in the way. Hence numbers like "The Internet Is for Porn," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "If You Were Gay" go right for the comic jugular, while gentler fare such as "There's a Fine, Fine Line" aims to keep us tethered to the quaint love story between puppets Kate and recent college grad Princeton.
Almost every actor pulls double — even triple — duty on the puppet front, with Jennifer Richmond and Tyson Laemmel as the strong leads. Richmond is a likable actress with a competent singing voice — and what's not to like when she suddenly rubs her puppet boobs in some unsuspecting male audience member's face? She also displays a keen facility for playing her part, as does Laemmel, in the show's infamous puppet sex scene. The song title says it all — "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)."
Daniel Bissell and Evelyn O'Neal Brush are strong supporting players. Brush exudes boundless energy and a sense of fun, and Bissell proves versatile as singer and channeler of authentic puppet voices. Plus he gets big laughs as the show's unlikely hero, Trekkie Monster.
Fiona Soul does well inhabiting the character of Gary Coleman, the now-deceased former TV child star who is Avenue Q's apartment superintendent. When the show opened in New York in 2003, Coleman was very much alive, and the joke probably worked better then. Somehow, though, it still gets laughs (and presumably, helps to ensure Coleman's immortality). Otherwise, Soul earns kudos singing the offbeat but very catchy "Schadenfreude." Hugh Britt is also a welcome presence as a thirtysomething loser who longs to do standup.
The casting of Sayaka Mizusawa, who plays Christmas Eve (the show's obvious bow to intentional political incorrectness), is less successful. The idea here is to work the Asian stereotype for all it's worth, and play it with a big wink to the audience. Alas, Mizusawa simply doesn't have the acting or singing chops to handle the role, and about half the time her lines are unintelligible. That said, her perkiness and winning smile, not to mention the poised players surrounding her, minimize the damage.
Various graphics — designed by Zach Rosing, Ben Phillipe and show producer Cathy Street — are cleverly projected, stage right, onto some hanging laundry to help illustrate various songs. Sound issues persist at STC's venue, however: Even though the singers are miked, the balance between them and the band is a hit-or-miss affair.
Performances may be a little erratic here on Avenue Q, but there's still plenty of talent to successfully complete the show's assault on the status quo. The results are refreshing and often very funny — even cathartic.
After last weekend's impressive presentations and judging by experts and audience members, Boiler Room Theatre has announced the three finalists in its Pressure Cooker musical contest. The works slated for fuller development are City of Light by Michael McFaden, Happily Ever After (Not) by Janet McMahan and Umbrella by Steve Leslie and Len Cohen. (City of Light, incidentally, will be presented March 30-31 at Global Education Center. See Critics' Picks on p. 17.) Each will eventually receive a full staged reading, and later, a single winner will be determined, which will receive a full production at BRT in 2013.
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