The brag list for “Avenue Q” reaches farther than its city limits. Firstly, it beat out fan-favorite and bandwagon magnet “Wicked” for Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 2004. Secondly, it writes a fictionalized Gary Coleman and versatile puppet sex into the same scene. And thirdly, it’s the fast-selling season opener and first adult-themed show at the Berkeley Playhouse.
With an impressively understated two-story set, a live band under the stage and an expertly casted roster of singers and puppeteers, the Broadway-sized production fits humbly on the Playhouse stage where the venue’s intimate capacity grants the audience a privileged view of the actors’ and director Danny Cozart’s artful attention to detail.
Known for retrofitting the educational medium of “Sesame Street,” “Avenue Q” covers unemployment, racism, coming out and what the Internet is really for. Fresh-faced college graduate, Princeton (Kevin Singer), resists disillusionment as he searches for his life “purpose” amid the broke and mature-by-default residents of Gary Coleman’s superintendency (Isaiah Boyd). With the exception of three human characters, the show boasts a variety of single-rod, double-rod and live-hand puppets.
“Avenue Q” fills seats with ease thanks to the script’s generous vulgarity and inventive storytelling structure. It’s hard to keep your thumbs down when the closeted puppet Rod (also Kevin Singer) concludes “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada” by belting, “And I can’t wait to eat her pussy again.”
While Rod constantly overcompensates his sexuality, the actors themselves exceed the show’s shock value with their magnificent comedic timing and saturated emotions. Playhouse veteran Catherine Gloria almost transcends her character with her full voice, sharp, rapidly changing expressions and almost marionette-like movement. Oakland School for the Arts alumnus Branden Thomas exhibits a profound range of perfect pitches playing the goofy Nicky, the deep and growling Trekkie Monster and one-half of the sickeningly high-pitched Bad Idea Bears.
Starring as the pink and fuzzy Kate Monster, Andrea Dennison-Laufer livens the straight-edged character with a punchy attitude that is both prim and smoothly crude. When Mrs. Thistletwat (Hayley Systrom) berates Kate for missing work by saying, “I should have never hired a monster. Your race is notoriously lazy,” Kate bites back: “Better a monster than a crabby little bitch.” Next to her relentlessly cheeky delivery, the only performance capable of upstaging Dennison-Laufer as Kate Monster is Dennison-Laufer as Lucy, a porn actress and bar performer. At the end of her song “Special,” Lucy hits a note so resonant, it truly feels like she’s transported the house from the working class dirt of Avenue Q to a vivacious, sparkly speakeasy.
Aside from its acting, the execution is remarkably seamless for a musical whose format is all about exposing the seams. The puppeteers’ tight and masterful choreography gives the inanimate cast a larger-than-life stage presence. The actors themselves emote strongly even when they have to perform through what amounts to exuberant hand gestures costumed in crafts projects. Not once is the fantasy of puppet and human co-stars broken and the production is all the more enjoyable for it.
Erik Scanlon (lauded as the most in-demand projection designer in the Bay Area) brings kitschy video elements to enhance the show’s TV-on-stage concept. Projections land smartly on the set’s garage and windows to play opening credits, animated segues and to provide “realistic” backgrounds to various bedroom scenes.
On top of its technical achievements, Berkeley Playhouse adds a custom flair with allusions that cater to the Bay Area audience. References to BART, Gary Coleman’s death and Donald Trump improve upon the script.
Much like the scene in which Princeton’s garbage awakes as a cardboard box monster, “Avenue Q” is like dancing trash. It unfurls explicit material, lauds frankness and exposes all the seams of storybook dreams — all while being a wonder to watch. Along with Berkeley Playhouse’s directional enhancements, “Avenue Q” is undisputably a treasure.
“Avenue Q” is playing at Berkeley Playhouse through Oct. 11.
Contact Jennifer Wong at [email protected].