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June 22, 2012

On the Scene: ‘Avenue Q’ and its hilarious look at real life

REVIEW: Everything in life isn’t as it seems. We all can concede that much. But how many of us will admit feeling mislead — or worse, duped — by our parents and society into believing that we can do anything, something many of us have been told since we were young?

As we age, life’s restrictions begin to confine and the phrase “anything is possible” becomes a lie. Or just words used by someone who has everything.

“Avenue Q,” the production currently running on Trustus Theatre’s main stage, wrestles with the reality of maturing, searching for your dreams and then having those dreams crushed. Failure — or, at the very least, reevaluating goals — doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. It can be hilarious.

Avenue Q is the home of struggling, swearing and still hopeful grown-up puppets who share their stories spiked with raunchy wit. Each of the characters has a big personality and a handbag of issues by their side, but they play into an oddly functional dysfunctional family. Adults live and struggle there, too.

The musical, directed by Chad Henderson, is fast-paced entertainment, with jokes pouring like beers at soccer-loving bars during international soccer tournaments. The punch lines kept coming, beginning with a warning about cellphone usage and the illegalities of recording video during the show. The latter, we were told, might cause you to go to jail, drop the soap and then be used as a puppet.

If that sounds too bawdy for your tastes, this isn’t the musical for you. But it you found the bon mot funny, this is must-see theater.

The actors playing the parts of puppets were visible. Wearing all black, they controlled the puppets, created in collaboration with Columbia Marionette Theatre, with rods and their hands.

Trekkie, voiced by Brien Hollingsworth, sounds like Cookie Monster. Only Trekkie’s obsession isn’t a sweet treat; it’s porn, about the only recession-proof investment. Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, two women on the opposite ends of the bring-home-to-mom spectrum, are played by Katie Leitner. Elisabeth Baker, who spent much of the evening with one arm around Hollingsworth’s waist as together they maneuvered Nicky, also voiced by Hollingsworth, played Mrs. Thistletwat and a lovable but not-so-caring Bad Idea Bear.

Kevin Bush as Rod, a successful businessman, and Princeton, a college graduate with an (unfortunate?) English degree. The characterizations of Rod and Princeton represent the gulf of space and time between setting out and settling down that “Avenue Q” explores.

The humans – the bossy Christmas Eve played by Annie Kim and the jobless comic Brian acted by G. Scott Wild — interacting with the puppets will remind people of “Sesame Street,” but Jim Henson’s creations didn’t have the fortune of having Gary Coleman as their building super. Credit Devin Anderson, who plays the former “Diff’rent Strokes” star, for having the comedic timing necessary to coax a hearty laugh out of the played-out phrase, “What you talkin’ bout, Willis.”

Social topics like credit management, employment, homelessness and dating were addressed. The production also rubs (pun intended) against topics such as sexual preference and, um, the positioning of bedroom furniture, like the nightstand. Rod, a Republican investment banker, is gay (poor, poor guy) and his roommate, Nicky, is cool with it. Rod, we learn, lusts after Nicky, who unwittingly outs him to the neighbors. (Nicky thinks it’s obvious that Rod is gay, and it is.) When Nicky sings that it’s OK to be gay, the choreography is strong, particularly when the box puppets make a brief appearance on the stage.

“Avenue Q” is most socially aware — or should that be ribald? — when it punches racist humor in the gut. Ethnic jokes are based on truth, the cast sings. There’s a punch line about cab drivers who don’t shower, and one about Coleman not being able to hail a cab. The kicker at the end of the song rolls right off the singers’ tongue. Playing with stereotypes that could potentially harm feelings shouldn’t be taken lightly — unless of course the writers are clearly winking at and with the audience.

The Bad Idea Bears seemed cute and cuddly, but they’re really devils in disguise, at one point convincing Princeton, being supported by his parents, to buy beer in bulk instead of just purchasing a six pack. (If the exchange doesn’t make you want to have a drink, the footage of “Drinking in the Morning” shown during the intermission might push you to the theater’s bar.)

“Avenue Q” is propelled by well-rehearsed actors and an unseen band. Some cast members acted while holding one puppet and voicing another being controlled by a cast mate. Leitner was especially impressive doing so while Kate Monster and Lucy had a scrimmage of words. (Lucy’s sultry vocals during one number were so convincing that it makes one believe Leitner herself should consider cabaret performance.)

Mastering a part is hard; mastering a part that includes singing, dancing and making sure a puppet looks like they’re talking, is much more difficult.

“Avenue Q” presents the problems of adulthood through lighthearted, comedic material. But the play also wraps nicely — $10 million raised by just asking your neighbors! — which isn’t like life for most of us. But this is theater, a place where one can escape from the course of their lives for a few hours.

Information: (803) 254-9732 or

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