Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stage Left Podcast, 22 February 2008

Reviewed: The new Broadway cast recording of Grease, two new recordings of music from West Side Story, and discs of film music by Maurice Jarre and Hans Zimmer.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Kids' Stuff

[This is the text of my review of Avenue Q for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

"I parody myself every chance I get", said former child star Gary Coleman in an interview for "I try to make fun of myself and let people know that I'm a human being, and these things that have happened to me are real." Which dispels the mystery of how Coleman can appear as a character in the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q without a Jacob Marley-style chain of lawsuits.

There's no mystery at all, though, about the show's popularity with Tony judges and audiences alike. A smart, hip, and very funny parody of Sesame Street, Avenue Q is also an entertaining (if R-rated) story of college-educated twentysomethings - both flesh and foam rubber - coming to grips with the economic, political and sexual facts of life. Their low-rent apartments are all on Avenue Q, in "an outer borough of New York City" that appears to be a cross between the East Village and Brooklyn.

In much the same way that Sesame Street teaches toddlers shapes and counting, Jeff Whitty's clever book for Avenue Q teaches its young adults the shape the world is in and how to account for their place in it. With the help of ingenious (and often memorable) songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who came up with the whole concept in the first place) and cheerful animated sequences displayed on flat-panel monitors flown in from above, characters learn about commitment, city life, and even "Schadenfreude" - that guilty pleasure we all derive from seeing our enemies take pratfalls.

The story of Avenue Q begins with newly-minted college graduate Princeton asking the musical question "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English" while looking for an apartment someone with "no skills yet" can afford. He finds it, along with lots of new friends who all agree with the musical statement "It Sucks to Be Me". Those friends include Muppet-style puppets Trekkie Monster (an adult Cookie Monster who has substituted porn for sugar), Kate Monster (with whom Princeton will have a stormy romance), and feuding roommates Rod and Nicky (Bert and Ernie with grown-up hang-ups).

While Princeton tries balance his relationship with Kate and his quest for a "Purpose" in life, the closeted Rod fantasizes about amiable but clueless Nicky and Trekkie Monster takes a moment to remind us that "The Internet is for Porn". Amongst the non-puppets, would-be comic Brian finally marries his Asian-American fiancée Christmas Eve who, despite two Master's Degrees in social work, still can't hold on to a client - possibly because of her black belt approach to counseling. Building superintendent Gary Coleman oversees and comments on it all while the Bad Idea Bears cheerfully lead everyone astray.

In the end, after much sturm, drang, and simulated puppet sex, everyone finally comes to terms with the fact that life, love, work, happiness and George Bush are only "For Now". It may not a completely happy end, but it's a hopeful one. Ram Das would probably approve.

The various humans and puppets are played by a wonderfully engaging ensemble of seven talented and versatile actors. Robert McClure, Kelli Sawyer, David Benoit and Minglie Chen are the four puppeteers. They're so good that, ironically, they completely disappear into their characters, even though they're clearly visible on stage, making those characters move. I had to literally force myself to periodically look at them, if only to remind myself that they were flesh and blood rather than foam rubber.

On the non-synthetic side, Angela Ai is splendid as the over-qualified and under-achieving Christmas Eve as is Cole Porter (yes, that's his real name) as her slacker husband, Brian. Former St. Louisan Carla Renata is a delight as Gary Coleman.

The bottom line on Avenue Q is that it's great fun, but definitely adult fun. Unless your kids are old enough to vote - or at least drive - you should definitely leave them at home. In fact, judging from the opening night audience, a lot of those kids brought themselves. The average age was clearly farther away from retirement than is usual at the Fox these days. And that can only be a good thing - at least for now.

Avenue Q continues through February 24th [2008] at the Fox in Grand Center. For tickets, call 314-534-1111.