Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Brett E. Beiner.
One might think that a show that traded on topicality in 2004 would feel a bit outdated in 2018, but that is not at all the case for Avenue Q, the musical featuring blunt-speaking, sexual puppets that is enjoying a revival at the Mercury Theater. While we might have hoped back then that racism, homophobia, and problematic GOP Presidents would have just been, as the show puts it, issues “for now,” our political and social scene today doesn’t look much different from what it did back then. Avenue Q, which examines these issues through the filter of laughter and catchy tunes sung by solid puppeteers, still feels as up to the minute as it ever did. And Mercury’s show features such wonderful performances that it holds up even to the memory of that Tony-winning original production.
The show has not been changed much over the years. Mercury’s production does have a couple of references to our current administration, but overall this is the same show audiences have cheered for since it premiered, even using as much of the same staging as Mercury’s smaller stage will allow. Alan Donahue has designed a lovely, compact set for director L. Walter Stearns’ company to play on. Even the animations, enhanced in this production by some inventive lighting design by Dustin L. Derry, are familiar to those who have seen the play before. None of this, though, diminishes the quality one bit: as I said, the show holds up.
One of the reasons this somewhat pornographic and politically incorrect musical works is the fact that its authors, Jeff Marx, Robin Lopez and Jeff Whitty, understood that audiences would fall for sympathetic puppets invested with such warmth that they seem to be as real as the three human characters onstage. Another is that productions keep finding amazingly talented performers to handle the puppetry and the songs.
A trick to puppetry onstage, where the puppeteers are completely visible, is that the performers must be able to move the puppet authentically while simultaneously playing the part themselves, taking care not to upstage their cloth or faux fur counterparts. We focus on the puppet, but it is the actor whose work we celebrate. And this ensemble is worth celebrating (as is the behind the scenes work of puppet designer Russ Walko and puppetry coach Rick Lyon).
The cast is led by the wonderful Jackson Evans as Princeton, the 22-year-old fresh out of college with a BA in English who finds himself unprepared for life in the real world. Princeton spends the show searching for his “purpose” while falling through the cracks in the Avenue Q slum he ends up in, and Evans is perfect in the role, especially in scenes with Kate Monster (Leah Morrow, who also played the role in the acclaimed 2014 edition of the show, which was also at the Mercury). Morrow takes this adorable blue puppet and makes it come alive: her joys and sorrows are the true heart of the show. (Her tremendous rendition of the Act One finale, “It’s a Fine, Fine Line” can make you cry.)
In addition to these fine performers, the cast includes the outstanding Christian Siebert as Rod, the closeted gay Republican puppet, and Dan Smeriglio, another returnee from the 2014 cast as Rod’s roommate Nicky, who sings the hilarious “If You Were Gay” to his best friend to let him know that he’d be there for him even if he came out. Other neighbors are Brian (Matthew Miles) and his fiancée Christmas Eve (Audrey Billings), a deep-accented Japanese woman who belts one of the show’s best, funniest and somehow most touching numbers, “The More You Ruv Someone.” Stephanie Herman and Jonah D. Winston also provide great laughs as Lucy T. Slut and Trekkie Monster, respectively, and Winston’s contribution to “The Internet Is For Porn” is delicious.
Princeton’s new landlord is none other than former child star Gary Coleman (David S. Robbins), who plays with his former “Diff’rent Strokes” persona as well as the life comedown that has led him to be a super on this broken down block. Robbins is a superb Coleman, bringing the right light touch to a role that might, if we are allowed to think too long about it, make us sad. But when he joins the cast for “It Sucks to Be Me,” “winning” the unofficial contest for whose life is worst, he establishes Coleman as an upbeat, happy person who acknowledges his former glory but doesn’t dwell on it. He even gives Nicky a lesson on the tendency people have to enjoy others’ suffering in “Schadenfreude.”
Perhaps schadenfreude might explain the show’s lasting success, too. These are people (and puppets) who are living in circumstances that make the Alphabet City of Rent look enticing. And there is that fairly insistent reminder that we as a nation do not seem to be moving in a good direction. Still, there is a happy ending (of sorts) and that assertion that all our troubles are temporary. And by the time it is over we’ve laughed quite a lot and experienced more tender emotions than you’d think a bunch of puppets could provide. And that’s the real magic of this show: its characters may be made of cloth and fur, but its heart is extremely real. It’s a joyful, funny gem of a show that just makes you feel good. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.
Avenue Q is a Mercury Theater production now playing at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago, until November 4. Performance times may vary; check the website at Mercury Theater. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.