The set-up: Take Sesame Street and give it a college coming of age story and an R rating and you've got the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q, now being presented by Music Box Musicals. The musical, which stars both puppets, monster puppets and humans, was a screaming success when it originally stormed Broadway in 2003, taking home that year's Drama Desk award for Best Musical and the Tony for Best Musical the following year. It captured something that no musical had ever done before: live puppet sex.
The execution: Music Box Musicals is presenting Avenue Q in its intimate theater space on Colquitt, which, even for those that have seen the show when it toured to Houston with Broadway Across America a few years ago, is quite a different experience than seeing it in a large venue. The stage is small not giving the large cast of actors and puppets much room to move around, and what room the actors have is taken up by the backdrop of a run-down big city apartment building. To accommodate for the lack of space, director Michael J. Ross has placed much of the action to the left side of the stage, taking away some vantage points for those patrons seated on the opposite angle.
Being in such close proximity to the actors and the puppets takes away some of the façade of the production. It is like seeing a puppet show in HD - every puppet imperfection is magnified. It also gives more reason to focus on the actors' very animated expressions. Conversely, the space allows for more audience/actor interaction, which is a hoot. During "The Money Song" number, one in which the characters try and raise funds for one of the puppet's, Kate Monster, "Monstersori" school, the actors are able to walk right into the audience and panhandle, adding to the comedy and audience engagement of the production.
Marco Camacho and Allison Sumrall aptly play the main puppets, Princeton and Kate Monster, respectively. Both actors portray additional puppets as well, and the jumping between the two characters, even when they are both required in one scene, is done skillfully and without missing a beat. This double-role requirement was also a part of the original Broadway production and while there appears to be no logical reason for the main actors to have two times the effort, it works just fine.
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The other puppets and actors keep the comedy moving along and more or less have the vocal chords to match. Eric Edward Schell and Cay Taylor handle all of the ancillary puppet roles excellently, and as the "Bad Idea Bears," who convince Preston that drinking a 12-pack of beer makes for better economical sense that not, they stole the scenes from under the main actors' puppet noses.
Veteran actress, Tamara Siler, takes on the role of building superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, Gary Coleman the child actor) with power and superb comic styling. I had forgotten that there was a character of Gary Coleman from the last time I had seen the show, and my initial thought was that given that the actor passed away in 2010, perhaps this character should have been changed. But the play is all in such good fun - there are songs about sex, racism, homosexuality and porn -- getting offended by that one aspect would be absurd.
The verdict: Avenue Q is a non-musical person's musical; the songs are funny, the puppets makes it lighthearted and easy to watch and there is a nice moral in the end. If you have never had the opportunity to see this show before, The Music Box Musicals production is as good as any, with quality acting, puppetry and singing. The nature of seeing this type of production in a small theater maybe jarring to some that find being right in the action too close for comfort, especially for those who find it awkward to watch puppets have sex. If that is the case, then just find yourself a spot in the back of the theater and enjoy a good show.
Avenue Q runs through November 23 at The Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. For information call 713-522-7722 or visit themusicboxtheater.com.