‘Real Life’ isn’t easy—and even less so if you’re a puppet! Such is the premise of “Avenue Q”—the 2004 Tony Award Winner (including for Best Musical, Book, and Score,) which One More Productions, the award-winning resident theater company housed in the Landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, have chosen as the latest offering in their 2022-2023 season (and frankly, they couldn’t have chosen a funnier or more unique show to continue welcoming back playgoers with!)
Featuring the original puppets used in the Broadway Production, who perform alongside several ‘human’ actors, the show’s format is a parody of all those classic ‘self-esteem building’ kids programming we all remember, but its content encompasses more decidedly ‘adult-oriented’ topics like racism, homosexuality, and internet pornography–and is definitely meant for mature audiences. With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty (based on a concept by Lopez and Marx,) this new production once again deploys the creative dexterity of OMP Co-Founder and Artistic Director Damien Lorton as the show’s Director and Musical Director: “This is unlike anything you’ve seen before” Lorton enthusiastically assured those in attendance on Opening Night, and he couldn’t have been more correct!
So much more than your average “puppet show”, it’s a Hell of a lot funnier–with bracing irreverence seemingly at every turn! Told through a series of brief vignettes that all relate to the over-riding theme, forget calling this one a “laugh a minute”—this is a laugh every thirty seconds—or less! Part flesh, part fabric and packed with a big heart and even bigger laughs, “Avenue Q” is the mirth-filled musical that tells the tale of a bright-eyed recent college grad named “Princeton”. Arriving in the Big Apple with his brand new “B.A. in English”, he’s got humongous dreams and a tiny bank account–and virtually no job prospects, so he must settle for a shabby apartment all the way out on Avenue Q in Greenwich Village’s notorious “Alphabet City”. Nonetheless, his new neighbors seem nice enough—and they sure are colorful. There’s “Kate Monster”, the idealistic girl-next-door who dreams of establishing a ‘Monster-Sori’ school for young monsters; “Lucy The Slut” (a skanky barfly,) “Trekkie Monster”–who’s no relation to Kate despite their same last-name. “Trekkie’s” an acerbic recluse who calls himself an ‘Internet Entrepreneur’ despite spending all his days trawling the net for free porn (think “Cookie Monster” if he were to overdose on Viagra, Spanish-fly and Poppers.) Little wonder it turns out he has all the money! There’s also “Rod”–a closeted gay Republican who lives with his platonic (–no, really) pal “Nicky” ,who’s an all-around slacker (even as a puppet he has a five o’clock shadow!) Not to mention the “Bad Idea Bears”—a pair of trouble-making neighborhood bruins—one blue, one yellow, who are dead-set on separating “Princeton” from his money as soon as possible (Heads-up: “Big Bird”, “Mr. Moose” or “Daniel Tiger” they are not!) Puppets all of them, they also share the building with several real-live ‘people” friends including “Brian” —a would-be Standup comedian, and his ever-patient Asian fiancée, “Christmas Eve” (who herself dreams of being a Social Worker, if she could only find some clients.) They all coexist under the watchful eye of the building’s Superintendent “Gary Coleman” (yes, that Gary Coleman, even though ‘he’s’ portrayed by a female actress.) Together, this lovable gang of misfits and under achievers struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in the real world where life is a lot more complicated than generations of youngsters were led to believe it would be from such sugar-coated kids programs as “Sesame Street”, “Mister Rodgers Neighborhood”, “The Electric Company” or even “Captain Kangaroo”. Programs that, on the face of it, were benign enough, but inadvertently sent out the message that each child was special and deserving regardless of ever needing to ‘do’ anything to prove it.
Seething with humor that’s about as patently un-P.C. as it gets, this also means it might not be for more ‘sensitive’ viewers; but those who can appreciate it are in for an absolute treasure–trove of one hilarious gag after the other–all in rapid succession, with considerable (if suggestive) laughs also to be found in the hilarious lyrics of the many offbeat, categorically ‘non-woke’ musical numbers.
Given its smaller cast, the show is a exceedingly good fit for “The Gem Theatre’s” more intimate venue, yet Director Lorton’s spirited direction never allows for even the passing illusion of this being ‘small’ by any means. As he’s proven numerous times before, he has a special facility for nutty kinds of humor (previous outings like “The Producers” and “The SpongeBob Musical” come readily to mind,) and part and parcel of this brand of comedy requires at least a few hints of grandiosity to get its point across. Happily, Lorton’s modus operandi excels in striking just that right balance to maximize the hilarity and absurdity of the on-stage happenings. Moreover, the puppetry is flawless throughout, with all of the cast uniformly evidencing superior skills at manipulating their textile-based co-stars (sometimes it takes several of them to operate one puppet, but these maneuvers never get in the way of or distract from the action at large.) That action begins straight away with three superb numbers occurring in speedy progression while setting the scene and launching the goings-on. The prologue is an animated sequence introducing the title song and giving us the basic set up of “Avenue Q”—where it is and why we find ourselves there. Subsequently, we meet our protagonist “Princeton”—still in his cap and gown and clutching what is essentially a worthless diploma, as he croons “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English?”. Immediately following, the rest of the cast—people and puppets alike, join together for their preliminary ‘group’ outing, “It Sucks To Be Me” (but at least they admit at length: “It sucks to be us–but not when we’re together!”) Not long after, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” is another genuine crowd-pleaser (Wonder why? See the show!) Collectively, everyone in the cast flourishes with such topnotch ensemble pieces as “It Sucks To Be Me”, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”, “You Can Be As Loud As You Want” and “The Money Song” (parts One and Two.) These are interspersed betwixt several outstanding duets and trios–among them: “I Wish I Could Go Back To College”, as a disheartened “Kate’ and “Nicky” join “Princeton” in what evolves into a wistful (and surprisingly touching) group effort which also occasions some terrific group harmony.
Act Two commences in comparably high style with the bouncy “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment”, as “Lucy” reappears with an eye (and other body parts) towards seducing “Princeton”. Does she succeed? Yes, but as often befalls in real life, getting what we think we want (then discovering it’s not what we hoped for,) can often point us toward what we sincerely desire. An example of this unfolds as this incident drives “Princeton” to finally realize it’s Kate whom he truly loves. Then just after, ‘the Money Song” gives rise to even more sublime ‘tunefulness’ as “Nicky” (now displaced) attempts to give “Pres” the secret to lasting happiness: “Helping others brings you closer to God” he proclaims. (Just because “Avenue Q” is stunningly off-the-wall and irreverent doesn’t mean it can’t be insightful to boot!) The show’s buoyant finale, “For Now” sees the cast rejoining again for a pithy full company endeavor as the advise one another: “Each time you smile… (only for now) it’ll only last a while. Life may be scary…But it’s only temporary.”
Adding to the performers’ ingenuity and resourcefulness is how many take on several roles. At the center of all the action–and providing it with much of its ‘heart’, is Matthew Rangel as our hapless hero, “Princeton”. Perhaps more than any role he’s previously taken on at “The Gem”, Rangel demonstrates incredible versatility here, giving not just one, but several tour-de-force performances as both “Princeton” and “Rod”.
His “Princeton” is bubbling over with energy and idealism, and he is beyond a doubt ‘the’ main character through whom all events are viewed and interpreted. Over and above opening the show (with “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English?”) even when he’s not the chief singer in several numbers, “Princeton” quite often remains a song’s primary focus, as is the case with “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment” and “I Wish I Could Go Back To College”. As the story develops, his solo, “Purpose” actually has him backed by a band of singing “Home Depo Moving Boxes” (—it’s a very witty visual moment, and one of many Lorton has cleverly infused into the proceedings!) Also in the midst of the first act, “Prince” has a lovely duet with “Kate” built around a ‘mix tape’ (well, a CD to be more precise,) as the pair begin to awkwardly envision the possibility of taking their friendly relationship a bit deeper. In his secondary role of the impossibly fastidious (and deeply closeted) “Rod”, given Rangel’s adept ministration, “Rod” easily becomes the audience favorite, and while Matthew absolutely triumphs with all he has been tasked to do here, nowhere is this more markedly so than toward the close of Act One with “Rod’s” ode to sexual self-delusion, “My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada”–building it into a real marvel of fast-paced and furious delivery, and making for one of the sure-fire comedic standouts in a show teeming with them.
Likewise taking on a dual role is Cassidy Love” as “Kate Monster”—the object of “Princeton’s” shy affection while at the other end of the spectrum, she also executes some equally remarkable work as “Lucy The Slut”. As “Kate” she’s appropriately perky and good natured with a refreshing underlying sensitivity that works well for this character—puppet or not (and oh, what a dazzling singing voice she has!) Love scores at the forefront of “The Internet Is For Porn”—a philosophical debate-through-song opposite “Trekkie Monster”, then just before the Act Break, her solo “There’s A Fine Line” lavishly showcases her expressive tonality with an A-Plus rendition. As “Lucy”–star of ‘Girls Gone Wild” parts two, five and seven–and the woman all the men ‘came’ to see, she sums up the show’s entire assertion in one sentence: “You know the only revelation people have in life Kiddo?” “Lucy” unceremoniously informs “Princeton” upon their meeting; “They’re NOT special—you’re not special. You are no luckier or more gifted than anybody else!” Peter Crisafulli also stands out in all the best ways possible as “Nicky”, “Trekkie Monster”, and one of the “Bad Idea Bears”. This too, is an all-out victory for Crisafulli, himself a well-known talent on “The Gem” stage, but here he gets to stretch his acting (and comedic) prowess in an entirely different way. For starters, he impresses dispensing a solid turn as Rod’s slacker roomie, “Nicky” with their duet titled “If You Were Gay”, which positively ranks as one of the most enthusiastic and whole-hearted showstoppers of this production. Then, he intrigues as the enigmatic “Trekkie Monster”, (“He a pervert! You no spending time with him!” “Eve” warns “Princeton” of “Trekkie” shortly after our erstwhile college boy moves into the building.) Alexandra Kyte also furnishes Gold-Medal worthy support as the other “Bad Idea Bear “along with Kate Monster’s boss, “Mrs. Thistletwat” (–Yeah, you read that right.) In this latter role, her scenes may not be all that many, but when she does appear, she gets some of the script’s very best and most side-splitting lines: “Crabby old bitches are the bedrock of society!” she fumes at “Kate” at one point.
The three ‘human’ performers, on the other hand, just play one character, but each is every bit as exceptional. They are: Ryan Addison is “Brian”, Joy Arzaga is his fiancée, ‘Christmas Eve” and Tickwanya Jones is “Gary Coleman”. Ms. Jones is also a very powerful singer as well, as she repeatedly validates with her parts in “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”, “The Money Song” and “It Sucks To Be Me”; however, she particularly scores leading “Schadenfreude”, an anthem in praise of self-satisfaction and happiness over the misfortune of others–and when Crisafulli as “Nicky” joins in, it makes for a dynamic…well, trio? As “Christmas Eve”, Ms. Arzaga similarly contributes some flawless comedic timing and gives one of the best performances in the entire program. She wisely never ‘over plays’ her character to the point of being just another passive Asian stereotype—yes, “Eve” speaks in broken English, but this lady is NO ONE’S fool; instead, she gives us a far stronger, more ‘take charge’ kind of woman (and given what a schlub her fiancé and later husband is, someone has to!) “I coming to this country for opportunities; tried to work in Korean deli but I am Japanese! But with hard work, I earn two Master’s Degrees…” she laments in “It Sucks To Be Me”. After Intermission, she has a sultry (and very funny) duet with “Kate”: “The More You Ruv Someone”: “The more you ruv someone, the more you want to kill ‘em! Loving and killing fit like hand in glove!” As her ‘intended’, “Brian”, Ryan Addison may only be involved in one or two numbers like “It Sucks To Be Me” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”, but his real accomplishment lies in how he’s made ‘Brian”—a chronically under employed schnook, into someone who is, in-point-of-fact pretty likable, and even more amazingly, relatable. It’d be far too easy to write-off “Brian” as merely a lovable loser, but what’s fascinating is how Addison has instilled his character with the audacity to preserve life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and never quit trying. It’s a pretty shrewd (and laudable) choice for his portrayal.
Supplying us with the tangible ‘Avenue’ and apartment building the action plays out against are Amanda Stuart’s cool “just this side of rundown” graffiti-urban Scenic Designs which even have a manhole cover painted onto the stage floor! They also utilize two sizable video screens on either side of the stage, all the better to ‘punctuate’ the plot at notable intervals or underscore a character’s situation or ‘revelation”, as they do with ‘Princeton’s” sudden comprehension that he seriously needs some kind of grander ‘purpose’ in his life. Jon Hyrkas’s Lighting Designs also slyly make use of color and shadows to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) comment on the action, such as how he bathes the stage in salacious red lights for both “Trekkie Monster’s” character-defining ballad, “The Internet Is For Porn” and “Lucy’s” not-at-all-subtle entrance at the nightclub. Special credit also goes out to Art Vega—billed as “Puppet Specialist”, who undoubtedly is responsible in major part for the overall success of the show, to say nothing of ensuring the cast is as adept with the puppetry elements as they so very clearly are.
Although emphatically for more ‘sophisticated’ theater-lovers who can appreciate outlandish no-holds-barred comedy, “OMP’s” “Avenue Q” will restore your faith in real Honest-To-God humor and its vital and abiding place in the theater—especially today. Indeed, much of what it has to say could have more resonance–and be more applicable now than when the show initially debuted back in 2003! Having officially opened on Saturday, October 1st, “Avenue Q” will run through Sunday, October 23rd, 2022, at “The Gem Theatre”, located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, CA. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; Additional Saturday Matinees will take place on October 8th and 15th, while a Post-Curtain “Talk Back” with the cast and crew will be held on Friday October 7th.. Tickets may be obtained by calling “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, by logging onto: www.GemOC.com , or by visiting the “Gem Theatre” box-office in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Special discounts for Seniors (60+) and Children (12 and under) are available, while “Student Rush” tickets are also being offered for certain Thursday and Friday evening performances.
Production Photos by Ron Lyon www.ronlyonphoto.com Courtesy of “One More Productions” www.theGEMoc.com (Title Photo Courtesy of Damien Lorton) Special Thanks to Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Dan Baird, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon and to the cast and crew of “One More Productions” 2022 Production of “Avenue Q” for making this story possible.