“You work real hard and the pays real low… and every hour goes oh so slow… and at the end of the day there’s nowhere to go…” but to Cockpit in Court’s production of Avenue Q! This raunchy and hilarious musical by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx is a modern adult take on the classic Sesame Street formula: adorable puppets living their day-to-day lives… It just so happens that these puppets live in the real world, with all the sex, drugs, and violence that goes along with it. The story revolves around Princeton, a 22-year-old puppet searching for his purpose in life. Along the way he meets a myriad of colorful characters, each with their own story to tell. Throughout the production, you get to know each of their stories, hopes, and dreams, and while this show is definitely ridiculous, by the end you’ll be rooting for all of them.
Director Todd Starkey has an incredible cast, space, and production crew to work with, and he’s made wonderful use out of all of them. The production has a smooth, fast-paced flow to it that works perfectly with the style of the show. Rarely do you take your eyes off the puppets, which is by far one of the most challenging tasks in directing a show where such props are displayed front and center. And yet, the puppets never come across as props – they come across as real characters, and a huge amount of credit must go to the director for pulling off such a feat.
The music direction by R. Christopher Rose is also outstanding. The harmonies come together beautifully, and the soloists all have their moments to shine. You can tell a great deal of effort and care was put into the vocal performances. There are so many stand-out numbers, it would be hard to pick a favorite; “If You Were Gay,” “Purpose,” “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada,” and “Fine, Fine Line” all immediately come to mind, but truly, every number has a rich and melodic quality to it, and praise should go to Rose for accomplishing such a fully-realized score.
One of the most pleasant surprises in this production comes from the choreographer, Elise Starkey. Many productions often overlook the importance of choreography, but E. Starkey does not fail to bring some wonderful dance numbers to this show. From the upbeat movements in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” to the excellent use of singing boxes in “Purpose” you’ll be amazed at these puppets’ moves!
The first thing you’ll notice the moment you enter the theater is the incredible set design by Bob Denton. Easily on par with some professional sets, the run-down apartments built into the background of this deep stage are beautiful in there dilapidation. The set is well-complimented by Tyler Bristow’s lighting design, which always keeps the focus where it needs to be. This, combined with the technical design by Jason Randolph (most noticeably in the large onstage screen which intermittently plays hilarious cartoon narrations) immediately draws you into the production, allowing you to really feel like you’re living right alongside these characters.
The costume design by Eva Grove is right on the money. While a lot of the costuming for this show is relatively simple (the puppets have their own apparel and the puppeteers are clad in black so as not to distract from their felt counterparts) the ones that do stand out are absolutely marvelous. Christmas Eve’s outfits are both eye-catching and ridiculously over-the-top, and Brian’s bright and tacky wardrobe is a perfect expression of his lazy, goofball persona.
While the production staff is definitely impressive, the show’s cast may be even more so. Not a bad apple in the bunch, this ensemble puts on one hell of a performance, pardon my language (…though if that offended you, you may not be cut out for this particular production.) Starting with the actual ensemble, Amanda Poxon and Tate Erickson do a great job in bringing even the smallest roles to life. From the fresh-faced Newcomer (Erickson) to the crotchety old Mrs. T (Poxon) to even their support work when an extra hand is needed (pun intended) these two do a great job every time they’re on stage.
The two other somewhat background roles are found in the cute, sweet, and utterly psychotic Bad Idea Bears (played by Angie Sokolov and Anthony Case.) Equal parts adorable and anarchistic, these two stop at nothing to bring about total chaos for Princeton and the show in general. While not on stage all too often, these two always make a big impression. And speaking of big impressions, that’s exactly what you get with a certain other character, the aptly named Lucy the Slut (played by Lauren Stuart.) Stuart’s introduction in her song “Special” shows she has an excellent set of pipes, which goes hand-in-hand with her puppet’s excellent set of… never mind. Her movements are always hysterical, and whenever she exits the stage she’ll definitely leave you wanting more.
Moving right along to the actual residents of Avenue Q, we start with the building’s superintendent, the bizarrely out-of-place former child-star Gary Coleman (played by Tigga Smaller.) Smaller is absolutely perfect for this part. Her comic timing is great, and both her numbers “Loud as the Hell You Want” and “Schadenfreude” are high-energy fun the whole time. As for the actual tenants, one of the first that deserves mentioning is the Cookie Monster parody named Trekkie Monster (played by Will Meister.) Trekkie has pretty much one thing on his mind, and it becomes abundantly clear what that is in his musical number “The Internet is for Porn.” One of the funniest parts of the show, Meister’s bombastic movements and hilarious vocals impeccably play into this rousing anthem to the thing his character loves most of all.
Besides Coleman, there are two other actual humans here: the soon-to-be married Brian and Christmas Eve (played by Stanton and Suzanne Zacker.) These two play incredibly well off each other (not surprising, as the two are actually married in real life.) They fit perfectly into their sitcom-esque roles: The comical slacker husband and the abrasively domineering wife. The two also get some excellent individual moments, whether it’s Stanton Zacker’s hilariously brief “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” (which is immediately shut down by his better half) or Suzanne Zacker’s boisterous yet heart-felt “The More You Ruv Someone.” While both characters are definitely over-the-top, the actors manage to add a sincere quality to them that really makes you root for this zany yet ultimately loving couple.
Speaking of “couples,” the show wouldn’t really be a Sesame Street parody without an homage to one of the most iconic pairs of characters in T.V. history; I’m of course referring to Ernie and Bert, whose raunchy counterparts, Nicky and Rod, are played flawlessly by Will Poxon and Josh Starkey respectively. As mentioned before, Poxon’s number “If You Were Gay” is one of the absolute highlights of the show. It really serves to kick things into that “so crass it’s good” level, and while the song is definitely crude, Poxon’s performance as the affable, carefree Nicky makes it actually rather heartwarming. As for Starkey, there are almost too many good things to say about this performer. Probably the most proficient puppeteer on stage, his ability to seamlessly mix subtle and exaggerated movements is a feat to behold. His ballad-duet with Kate Monster “Fantasies Come True” is filled with emotion, but it’s his solo number “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada” that wholly steals the show.
The main plot ultimately revolves around the budding relationship between Princeton (played by Josh Schoff) and Kate Monster (played by Clare Kneebone.) Both actors fully capture that youthful idealism of a recently graduated college student, making them both endearing and relatable. Kneebone’s voice is simply perfect for the role. Her Act One finale “Fine, Fine Line” is both moving and beautiful, aptly depicting her character’s internal struggle between what she wants and what she has. As for Schoff, his Princeton is just bursting with an infectious level of energy, most notably during his solo “Purpose.” He straddles the line between earnest and naïve remarkably well which really makes you believe in his motives and empathize with his struggles. The two are adorable on stage together, though “adorable” might not be the exact right word for some of their more… risqué scenes. Regardless, the two are always funny and charming, making their journey together an absolute delight.
While maybe not for everyone (particular those who wish to maintain any sense of child-like innocence), this vulgar, bawdy, and utterly uproarious production is a must see for any fans of the overt and unrestrained. It’s truly a laugh-a-minute, with a fast-paced energy and excellent music and performances throughout. I promise you won’t want to miss this one. If you do decide to come out (and I really hope you do) let me be the first to say, “Welcome to Avenue Q!”
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Avenue Q plays through July 1, 2018 at Cockpit in Court in the F. Scott Black Theatre of The Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center at the Community College of Baltimore County Essex Campus— 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Essex MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 840-2787 or purchase them online.