Reviewed by George Basler
The characters in Avenue Q are puppets behaving badly. You could say they’re walking on the wild side of Sesame Street.
And in the hands of a strong Ti-Ahwaga Community Players cast, the walk is well worth taking. The Owego-based community theater group is closing its strong season with an enjoyable and lively production of the Broadway hit musical.
The show, which runs through this coming weekend, is a spoof of the beloved children’s television show Sesame Street with humans interacting with large, fabric puppets, some of whom bear more than a passing resemblance to Sesame’s iconic Cookie Monster and Bert and Ernie characters.
To be honest, the premise is a gimmicky one and, in less capable hands, could resemble a bad Saturday Night Live routine that is funny for the first few minutes before wearing out its welcome and becoming as flat as day-old soda.
But, Avenue Q is clever and engaging throughout, with much of the credit going to Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez for the catchy score and Jeff Whitty for the inventive book. The little show scored a deserving upset in 2004 by winning Tonys for best musical, score and book over the gaudier Wicked.
What was pleasantly surprising to me was the show’s tone. Based on advanced warnings about adult material, I was dreading a salacious, at times tasteless, production. I was also dreading a snarky and ridiculing tone that would leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
Neither is the case with the Ti-Ahwaga production. Despite scattered four-letter works and adult themes, Avenue Q is never vulgar. The satire is not mean-spirited, but sweet-natured and packed with a lot of heart.
The characters, while often clueless, are lovable, and the send-up of Sesame Street is good-natured, not insulting. (That being said, the language and themes mean you should definitely keep the kiddies at home.)
The story centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate who is looking for a job and purpose in life. He moves into an apartment on a shabby block in New York City where he meets and falls in love with Kate Monster, a kindergarten teaching assistant who is looking for love herself.
Along the way, the two main characters interact with a variety of human and puppet characters who are coping with their own insecurities and vicissitudes of life. They include Rod, a repressed gay Republican; his roommate, Nicky; Trekkie Monster, who lives upstairs; Christmas Eve, a passive/aggressive Asian therapist and her boyfriend, Brian; Gary Coleman, the former child star and superintendent of the building, and Lucy the Slut, the neighborhood good-time girl.
Also in the cast are two cute, but completely demented, bear puppets who show up periodically to give some hopelessly bad advice to the two main characters.
One of show’s strong points is the quality of the songs. Not only are they catchy, but they also contain some nuggets of real, sometimes painful, truth, presented in a humorous way. Highlights include “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,“ a commentary on prejudice and political correctness; “The Internet is For Porn” about the dark corners of cyberspace, and “Schadenfreude” about the perverse pleasure we take in other people’s misfortune.
There’s a lot of talent on display in Owego. The show requires the cast to not only sing and act but manipulate the puppets while mirroring their exaggerated body and facial expressions.
To prepare, the eight-person Ti-Ahwaga cast went through a three-day basic training session with a puppeteer from the Las Vegas’ production of Avenue Q, said director Brian Flynn, who did a first-rate job staging the musical. The cast learned their lessons remarkably well, which is no small praise. There is never a disconnect between the puppet and human characters.
Special notice must go to the two leads: Alondra Hughes, a student in childhood education at Broome Community College, who plays Kate Monster, and Joe Brainard, a band director in the Union-Endicott School District, who plans Princeton and Rod.
Hughes is achingly sweet and captivating in her role and does a smashing job with the tender ballad, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” which closes the first act. Brainard is suitably zany in both of his roles and brings shadings of emotion to his characters as well.
Still, the cast is so uniformly good that it’s almost unfair to single anyone out. All got a richly deserved standing ovation at the performance I attended. In alphabetical order, they are: Rachel Hardy, Kathy Harris, Randy Kerr, Chris Pellicano, Ginnie Rinehart and Stan Spencer.
The six-member orchestra, conducted by Nick Pauldine, is first-rate as well and never overwhelms the performers.
In the end, Avenue Q is as much an homage to Sesame Street as it is a parody. And, like Sesame Street, it teaches a moral message about the importance of community, friendship and celebrating, not fearing, differences. While the characters will never escape life’s anxieties or fully realize their dreams, they come to the conclusion that life’s journey is worth it.
As Variety noted in its review of the New York production, the message of endurance with a smile seems even more appropriate in this challenging time.
IF YOU GO: The Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center is located at 42 Delphine St., Owego. This weekend’s performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday (June 13 and 15) and at 2 p.m. Sunday (June 16). General admission tickets are $20; Sunday tickets for seniors, 60 and over, are $17. Tickets can be reserved by calling the box office at 607-687-2130.