Performing Arts: Avenue Q at the Lansburgh

by Editorial

Avenue Q, the three time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, is wrapping up its national tour at the Lansburgh Theatre.

By Julie LaPorte

Princeton, Brent Michael DiRoma, Kate Monster, Jacqueline Grabois. © John Daughtry 2009

Princeton, Brent Michael DiRoma, Kate Monster, Jacqueline Grabois. © John Daughtry 2009

After graduating from college with a BA in English, Princeton arrives in New York City hoping to find the right job, the right girl and a sense of purpose. Barely able to afford a room on Avenue Q, he begins to realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way people hope it will. Told using people, puppets and new media, Avenue Q features music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty and is directed by Jason Moore. It is playing at the Lansburgh Theatre at the Harman Center for the Arts through August 15.

The section of Avenue Q we are confronted with is gritty and run-down, three dilapidated row houses lean against each other, book ended by a scrawny tree on the left and a rooftop clothesline on the right. It is here we meet Princeton’s new neighbors: childhood-television-star-turned-superintendent Gary Coleman; unemployed comedian Brian with his therapist fiancée Christmas Eve; sweet and idealistic kindergarten teacher Kate Monster; investment banker Rod and his “between jobs” roommate Nicky; and Internet addicted Trekkie Monster.

On its year-long national tour, the cast of Avenue Q has been playing in average-sized houses seating 2,800-4,000 people, whereas the Lansburgh Theatre seats 451 – a difference the cast has really noticed.

“I love it that we’re playing to such a small house,” said Jacqueline Grabois, who plays Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut. “I think it really suits the show, and there are little things that didn’t read in a 4,000-seat house that are reading here. I’m learning new things every night – I’m learning how to be smaller as an actor.”

Without exception, the cast did an excellent job. Brent Michael DiRoma plays Princeton and Rod with heartfelt sincerity and a sense of humor. Tim Kornblum portrays the easy-going Brian with a sympathetic come-what-may nonchalance. Grabois’ Kate Monster is naïve and overly sensitive while her portrayal of Lucy the Slut infuses the puppet with steamy sensuality.

“Kate Monster is an everywoman,” said Grabois. “She is trying to start her career and find her path in life. She’s a strong woman and she’s looking for love. A lot of women can relate to that, especially in their mid-20s. And then Lucy is looking for a warm bed to sleep in every night. She’s also a very strong woman and she speaks her mind. She doesn’t care what other people think. These are really fun characters to play – every night I fall in love, I get my heartbroken, and I get laid!” she said, laughing.

Michael Liscio, Jr. is billed as Nicky, Trekkie Monster and one of the Bad Idea Bears; however, Zach Trimmer played these roles at the July 16 performance I attended. He was energetic, extremely talented and highly amusing. Lisa Helmi Johanson has the role of Christmas Eve, but again at the July 16 performance Julianna Lee played this role. Her rough edges and feisty manner easily won our hearts. Charles M. Baskerville plays Gary Coleman, with an almost cheerful acceptance of the disappointments of life. Kerri Brackin did a wonderful job playing Mrs. T and one of the Bad Idea Bears as well as lending a second hand to several other characters.

“Gary’s character in the show is a teacher,” said Baskerville. “And he teaches through his life experience. The premise of the show is that people are trying to find their purpose and it’s different for everyone and everyone’s journey to their purpose is different. Gary uses his own experiences to help others find their way to that purpose.”

For many of the cast members, this was their first time working with puppets. A task that can be difficult when your training up to this point has been reacting to the person in front of you.

“It’s very hard and intense,” said Grabois. “Not only do you have to make yourself believable, you have to make this puppet come alive and be believable as well.”

“We’re supposed to look at the puppet,” said Baskerville. “We’re not really supposed to look at the actor. But out of our periphery vision we can see what the actor is giving, how the actor is making up for what the puppet can’t do in terms of emotions. The difficulty is splitting the difference where you are responding to the puppet, but you are basing that off of what you are getting from the actor.”

Following these characters as they explore the very adult themes of relationships, racism, jobs and compromises, Avenue Q turns convention on its head. While the themes are serious, the treatment is hilarious. And our shared laughter was in recognition of the at-times absurdity of life. This performance may not be suitable for children, but it’s a must-see for adults.

For more information and tickets, visit their website.

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