Before I get started on the actual review of Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga’s production of “Avenue Q,” can I just say that for the first time in this town, when I sat down inside the theatre and looked around, I spotted drag queens in the front row. As usual, they were the best-dressed people in the room. Ladies, long may your eyelashes wave.
Now back to your regularly scheduled review.
“Avenue Q” opened off-Broadway in 2003, and famously made it to Broadway in only five short months, where it won three Tony Awards, “beating out ‘Wicked’,” the friend accompanying me pointed out. Its practically and (often actually) sacrilegious use of puppets, who look very much like Muppets, both scandalized and entranced theatre-goers, and I’m willing to bet Chattanooga audiences are reacting just the same—depending on how much people know about the show before they go.
It is NOT for children. Bad words are used a great deal. Some characters are gay, some have (enthusiastic) premarital puppet sex, and the late former child star Gary Coleman is satirized. Loving the sound of it? Go by all means. Fanning yourself and calling for your smelling salts? Stay home.
The fictional Avenue Q in New York is where a lot of beings—some human, some puppet, and all looking for a purpose in life—have ended up living, including Gary Coleman, who is the building’s super. Just like on “Sesame Street,” humans and puppets coexist, although not without some friction, leading to one of the show’s best songs, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” one of the highlights of this production as well. Another, my personal favorite, is “The More You Ruv Someone,” with lyrics that include: “You go and find him/And you get him/And you no kill him/‘Cause chances good/ He is your love.”
Now, the idea behind the kind of puppetry used in “Avenue Q” is that the actor, who is fully visible, “disappears” to the audience, which finds itself reacting to the puppet as a living being. Here is where the ETC production encounters some difficulties, which is understandable, as mastering this art takes years for most people.
Most successful, because she’s had years of practice with Kids on the Block, is Emma Wiseman as Kate Monster; this is lucky, because Kate is one of the show’s main characters. Wiseman is also gifted with a lovely voice and emerges as the show’s strongest performer. Kyle Dagnan, playing Princeton, another main character and Kate Monster’s sometime-love interest, also has an excellent voice and is a good actor, but we never forget he’s onstage alongside puppet Princeton.
Ryan Laskowski, puppeteering Nicky, the straight roommate of closeted gay Rod, seems to have adapted naturally to allowing Nicky to take stage instead of him, making for a funny and sensitive turn.
Other strengths of this production include Morgan Price as Christmas Eve, the Asian therapist-wannabe. The set, more elaborate than any I’ve seen at ETC, is very effective and the live accompanist, Jennifer Arbogast, does a fabulous job.
I truly enjoyed “Avenue Q” and happily suggest that adventurous theatre-goers get out and support ETC in their new digs inside Eastgate Town Center, where they have been welcomed with open arms by the mall’s management. Parking is easy and free, you can have Chinese food around the corner … what’s not to ruv?
“Avenue Q”: $20, $15 students, 7:30 p.m. - Jan. 25, 26; 2:30 Jan. 27
Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga, Eastgate Town Center, 5600 Brainerd Rd., (423) 987-5141, ensembletheatreofchattanooga.com