SALT LAKE CITY — Few musicals have been as anticipated as the regional premiere of Avenue Q at Wasatch Theatre Company. I must admit that I have been eager to see it and leapt at the chance to review this show. I have been a fan of the show since seeing the excerpt on the Tony awards in 2004, where it won the Tony for Best Musical, Best Score (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and Best Book (by Jeff Whitty). It has been a sensation ever since. Thankfully, Wasatch Theatre has given us a raucous and joyful Avenue Q.
On the off chance that you have been living under a rock for the last 8 years, Avenue Q tells the story of a recent college graduate who moves to the low-rent neighborhood of Avenue Q. There he meets Kate Monster, Trekkie Monster, Rod the Republican and his roommate Nicky, Christmas Eve and her boyfriend, Brian, an aspiring comedian, and the building superintendant, Gary Coleman. It is a cheeky spoof of Sesame Street, complete with puppets, racial stereotypes, and a little full-frontal puppet nudity. (!) It is easy to see why this won best musical, book and score. It is a well-written and very funny show.
Director and choreographer Rick Rea has done an excellent job of preparing the cast. They are all very comfortable in their roles and all deal well with the puppets. Cameron Kapetanov and Maddiey Howell as Nicky, Trekkie, Mrs. T and the Bad Idea Bears are the most accomplished of the puppeteers. They give their puppets so much personality that I woudl sometimes forget that there are people working them right in front of me. Howell and Kapetanov’s work together is almost seamless. The Bad Idea Bears are also probably the funniest characters in the show, simply because they are so inappropriate. Natalia Noble as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut also does an amazing job with her puppets. She gives Kate and Lucy very different personalities especially in the songs “Special” and “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” Other standouts in the cast were Alicia Washington as Gary Coleman (yes, the same Gary Coleman who died in Utah in 2010) and Lorinda Napuaokalani Hui-Ling Kim Griffiths as Christmas Eve. They both had great energy and brought the whole show up a level whenever they were on stage, particularly during “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Schadenfreude.”
However, not everything was a good as it could have been. While I am not a puppeteer, there were things that were done that took me out of the show. At several times in the show I was bothered by the puppeteers not getting the puppets to look where they should be looking. This was particularly true of Aaron Cole as Princeton, and occasionally by Jeremy Heaps as Rod. It was very distracting to me. Also Aaron Cole had problem with keeping the puppet’s mouth closed when not speaking. While there are times that this would be needed to display a certain emotion, his puppet’s mouth was almost continually open throughout the show. Transitions between scenes were also very slow and could have been tightened up considerably. At the end of several scenes the song would end, the music finish, the cast strike the pose, and the lights would not change for several seconds, then a very slow fade would begin. This could have tightened the pacing considerably.
The worst part of the show was, by far, the sound. There is no one credited with sound design, and that may be the problem. I can’t be sure, but it seemed that the music was coming from one speaker on the far left of the stage. Also the microphones which each actor wore were practically useless. Only randomly did they seem to work, but never to the benefit of the actors or the songs. This was especially true during Lorinda Griffith’s song, “The More You Ruv Someone.” Luckily the Studio Theatre is not a large venue, and so the mikes were mostly not needed.
While not perfect, it is a very enjoyable show with some great performances. Wasatch Theatre Company has done well bringing this regional premiere to Utah. This show is sure to sell out, so if you haven’t purchased tickets, do so quickly.