Avenue Q Delivers a Strong Message from Under All That Felt

aveqIt’s no secret that theater is all about pushing the envelope and being ever edgier and raunchier. Even seemingly innocent shows may be riddled with unexpected innuendo and profanity. And then there are musicals like Avenue Q, that transcend edgy and embark into deliberately offensive and profane territory. With songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn,” Avenue Q departs from the politically correct to deliver straight truths with no sugarcoating. The music was written by Robert Lopez, who also wrote the music for Book of Mormon and Frozen (one of these things doesn’t belong).

Ocean State Theatre Company brings the neighborhood of Avenue Q to life with a cast so perfectly suited for it, it’s as if the show was made with them in mind. The production is the directing debut of Jason Parrish.

Avenue Q is more or less “Sesame Street” for adults. It incorporates both puppets and people. The performers who use puppets do not use ventriloquism but rather speak and emote alongside their puppets. I found myself paying much more attention to the more expressive puppeteers than their felt counterparts. The story follows Princeton (Tommy Labanaris), a recent college graduate seeking his purpose in life. He ends up living on Avenue Q with a strange array of neighbors, including single-and-ready-to-mingle kindergarten assistant teacher Kate Monster (Rochelle Weinrauch); unemployed aspiring comedian Brian (Greg LoBuono); his fiance, social worker and Asian stereotype Christmas Eve (Jenna Lea Scott); Republican, investment banker and closeted homosexual Rod (also Tommy Labanaris); his messy roommate, Nikky (Jeff Blanchette); the perverted Trekkie Monster (also Jeff Blanchette); and washed up child star and superintendent, the one and only Gary Coleman (Lovely Hoffman). As Princeton navigates the “real world,” he faces obstacles such as the Bad Idea Bears (Jeff Blanchette and Elise Arsenault), a pair of cute teddy bear-esque puppets who give Princeton such great ideas as spending his rent money on beer, and seductress Lucy the Slut (Rochelle Weinrauch). With the help of his newfound friends, he ultimately discovers that it’s okay not to know his purpose right now, and that he can still find happiness and meaning along the way.

Perhaps the biggest challenges Avenue Q presents for its performers is the puppeteering and the double casting. These create some puppet handing-off madness backstage and some instances where a performer may voice two characters appearing in the same scene. To make matters more complicated, many of the characters that are double cast are complete opposites and have completely different voices. Rochelle Weinrauch, for instance, has to switch between the sweet, romantic Kate and Lucy the Slut. When it all goes flawlessly, the audience doesn’t catch wind of a thing, and that was certainly the case in this production.

For me, the strongest vocals came from Weinrauch. Particularly in this show, character voices can make it hard to appreciate the performer’s vocal prowess, but even past the low, sultry voice of Lucy and the high-pitched, almost childlike voice of Kate Monster, it was evident her voice was gorgeous. This is especially highlighted in Kate’s power ballad “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.”

Tommy Labanaris is great as Princeton and Rod. I almost found his Rod more convincing than his Princeton; it’s hard to beat the sassiness of the Rod puppet, but Labanaris somehow manages it.

As is tradition in Avenue Q, Gary Coleman is portrayed by a female performer, and Lovely Hoffman’s performance of the cynical, comedic but also wise in his own right superintendent is truly lovely (I’m sure she’s never heard that one before…).

It can be easy to get swept up in the adult humor and puppet nudity, but once you get past all that, Avenue Q actually has an honest and unconventionally uplifting message, and one that you don’t hear often. It’s drummed into us from a young age that we need to know exactly where we’re heading in life and everything we want to accomplish, otherwise, our lives are meaningless. In reality, life takes unexpected turns; sometimes we achieve our dreams, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we’re thrown off course and end up finding another path entirely. Discovering one’s purpose is a lifelong process, not an instantaneous revelation.

Avenue Q runs through Aug 21. Tickets are available online at oceanstatetheatre.com, by phone at 401-921-6800 or in person at Ocean State Theatre Company, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick.

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