By Tim Harper
If you’ve paid attention to any of Ocean State Theatre Company’s publicity materials for the summer season, then you already know that “Avenue Q” was going to be something special. Different. After all, it’s the show that managed to beat out “Wicked” for the Tony Award for Best Musical, and also managed to net Best Book and Best Score making it a rare “triple crown winner.”
It’s also edgy, loud, and contains “full puppet nudity.”
State Fair, it surely isn’t. And that will be enough to get some people in the door, but for everyone else – the show’s awards are well-earned, and the cast in Warwick makes this a summertime slam dunk.
“Avenue Q,” opens in homage to Sesame Street, which Q’s legal team is careful to mention it is in no way affiliated with. A projected sun cheerfully lights up the stage and actors sing happily of childhood pleasantries. But as the song continues, the difficulties of adult life start to literally beleaguer the sun, which becomes angrier and angrier looking. Welcome to adulthood, check your Snuffleupagus and dreams at the door.
When the actors appear on stage we meet Princeton, played by Tommy Labanaris, who has recently graduated from college and is about to start his new job…until he receives the news that he’s been laid off during the well-titled “It Sucks to Be Me.” Princeton moves into an apartment on Avenue Q, makes friends with his funny, if eccentric, neighbors and falls head over heels for Kate Monster, played by Rochelle Weinrauch. The show follows Princeton’s search for a purpose, as well as his relationship with Kate and the many terrible decisions he makes along the way. And of course, Princeton doesn’t make all those horrible choices on his own. He gets by with a little help from his friends the Bad Idea Bears (played by Jeff Blanchette and Elise Arsenault). The show is consistently hilarious, taking a lighthearted view of the misfortunes of Avenue Q’s residents. It tackles real-life issues in a surreal enough manner that you feel entertained, not brought down, even by some really unfortunate situations.
The cast is phenomenal as a whole, but several members really set themselves apart.
Tommy Labanaris plays the aforementioned Princeton but also plays Rod, a character who is struggling to accept his own sexuality. Labanaris is masterful at changing the timbre of his voice and mannerisms for each character, bringing unique vibrancy to both roles. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor on stage. Actors Elise Arsenault and Jeff Blanchette consistently steal the show when on stage together. The pair play Nicky (Rod’s roommate) and Trekkie Monster together, with Blanchette voicing and operating the mouth and left hand of the puppets while Arsenault operates the right hand. What is most impressive is the level of synchronization these two have in their combined roles while gesturing, moving around stage, and dancing. These two also play the Bad Idea Bears, who are easily the funniest characters in this show.
As a body of work, Avenue Q is certainly unique. The songs are offbeat and crass at times. If you’re easily offended, you probably aren’t going to love songs that espouse such truths as “The Internet is for Porn” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).” But amid coarse jokes and, yes, full puppet nudity, there is a deeper, moving story that makes you really care about the story. At the core, it’s clever and heartfelt. It’s easy to see why this one is an award winner.
Masterfully directed by Jason Parrish, with musical direction from Justin P. Cowan, Avenue Q is definitely not a show for the whole family, as adult situations and language are very much present. However, for everyone else, this is the show to see in Rhode Island this summer.
“Avenue Q” runs through Aug. 21 at Ocean State Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets range between $39 and $59 and may be obtained by calling (401) 921-6800, or visiting oceanstatetheatre.org.