"Avenue Q" is a puppet show for adults. The hand-held puppets occupying this urban avenue talk about race, sex, unemployment and other sensitive topics in this Tony Award-winning 2003 musical. You'll want to hear their funny comments in Silhouette Stages' winning production in the theater at Slayton House.
The show is a comfortable fit in this compact Columbia theater, because it's important to be able to watch the facial reactions of the human performers who hold and also provide voices for the puppet characters. When the touring Broadway version of "Avenue Q" appeared at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater in 2007, some of the performers' subtle body language was hard to read in such a large theater.
Whether seen up close or at a bit of a distance, "Avenue Q" is clever. The music immediately lets you know that the show is deliberately undermining the usual expectations one might have with a puppet show. There are many short songs that have the peppy and sappy sound you would hear on a children's educational TV program, but the music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx are peppered with politically incorrect statements expressed via four-letter words. Similarly, the book by Jeff Whitty is populated by characters so colorful that making off-color jokes is in their nature.
That irreverent approach to the material is enough to make anybody giggle. Having demolished our conventional expectations, "Avenue Q" proceeds to demonstrate that, ironically, it really does subscribe to the moral values and life lessons one expects from a traditional children's program. Basically, characters who do not get along learn how to get along. What's not to like about that?
Leading us on a tour down a gritty city street is a recent college graduate, the aptly named Princeton (Ryan Geiger), whose unemployed status has him seeking an apartment in this decidedly low-rent district. Speaking of these urban conditions, the set design by Alex Porter convincingly features three battered rowhouse facades; and it's nifty that the lively little band lead by musical director Michael Tan is set up inside a first-floor rowhouse window.
What's most appealing about Geiger's performance as Princeton is that he has the requisite Everyman persona to give us a guided tour of his new neighborhood. Geiger's singing is clear and direct, but would benefit from a bit of vocal shading here and there. His acting fortunately comes fully alive when Princetown meets Kate Monster (Danielle Sherry), the outspoken local young woman with whom he embarks on a tentative romance; their duets are among the show's highlights. Princeton and Kate Monster are not exactly Kermit and Miss Piggy, but we're sorta in the same neighborhood.
A very different romantic situation plays out between a sassy Asian woman, Christmas Eve (Jenny Abraham), and an ordinary Joe named Brian (Matt Scheer); and then there is the friendship between two roommates, Nicky (Brian Sackett) and Rod (Neil Rushnock), whose closeness leads to much analysis and just plain gossip.
Other characters in this eclectic roster include the humorously crude, Cookie Monster-evocative Trekkie Monster (Jim Gross); the sultry Lucy (Kay Washington), a saucy puppet who's not afraid to use her seductive curves to advantage; Bad Idea Bears (Jeff Miller and Katrina Janson), who promote excessive drinking and reckless behavior; and Gary Coleman (Matt Wetzel), who is, in a surreal touch, the former TV child star, whose reduced circumstances now find him working as a building super.
The puppets designed by Rick Lyon certainly help create characterizations, but it's really the human performers who bring them to life. It's telling that most of the performers hold up puppets for the characters they represent, several performers portray characters that are not reliant on puppets, and ultimately such distinctions do not matter in a show where all these disparate characters live together.
Overseeing the generally smooth-flowing show are co-directors Mo Dutterer and Ric Ryder, choreographer Tina Marie DeSimone and others involved in this ambitious production.
Although the second act of the reviewed performance was marred by a few bumpy moments in the pacing and several instances of actors turning away from their body microphones, these were minor glitches in a production that truly inhabits its title address.
"Avenue Q" runs through March 11 at Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Wilde Lake. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15- $18. Call 410-637-5289 or go to http://www.silhouettestages.com.