Sex, drugs, Kermit and Oscar6/11/2014
Turns out it’s not far from Sesame Street to Broadway. “Avenue Q,” now at Stagewest, demonstrates a terrific musical can combine puppets who look like Kermit and Oscar, kiddie-show singalong energy, and a healthy dollop of raunch. In 2003 “Q” garnered three Tony awards, and it remained on Broadway for years. Here in Des Moines, it’s nothing less that the triumph of Stagewest’s season.
“Avenue Q” updates the ancient wisdom that childhood doesn’t end at puberty. It introduces a likeable group of twentysomethings — wood and cloth, most of them, but likeable. Three actors work puppet-free, in colorful clothing, but four players in black handle no fewer than 11 puppets, each another character, requiring a different voice and posture. Together, this ensemble sings and dances its way to thirtysomething.
The School of Hard Knocks, as ever, proves tougher than any university. Indeed, one of the few downbeat numbers is “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a more mournful ditty by far than “It Sucks to Be Me.” Indeed, “Sucks” comes across as bouncy, and bounce, throughout, proves key to the show’s success. Timing is on the dot, for every punchline, every pratfall, right from the opening swirl of players around the set’s central riser. That riser is backed by murals of Des Moines icons (the Meredith Trowel, the State House), but during the play it could be a” Star Trek” transporter. Alien shapes keep turning up: now lovers in a bedroom, now performers in a nightclub, and in nearly every case puppets.
The most hilarious shape-shifting comes in the ironic big numbers, show-stoppers like “The Internet is for Porn.” It’s a rare treat to see a full cast hopping and harmonizing around a line like “Grab your dick and double-click!”
Speaking of body parts, “Q” demands plenty of physical comedy, and the best comes from two relative newcomers, Dane Van Brocklin out of Drake and Kamillah Camp-Bey out of Roosevelt High. Van Brocklin handles Trekkie Monster, the freak for Internet porn, and Camp-Bey has one of the few puppet-free roles, namely, Gary Coleman. Yes, Gary Coleman, the fallen star. As one of the writers put it, Coleman is a “poster child” for the show’s theme: “not feeling special because you’re not a kid anymore.” As Camp-Bey plays him, cross-gender, snapping her torso and rolling her eyes, she’s her own puppet.
Even more impressive, though less about body English, is Rebecca Hunt as both Kate Monster and Lucy. The dual role demands Hunt switch from good girl to queen bitch and back, yet she nails each shift of tone, now asserting herself and now shrinking. Better yet, she can multi-task when it comes to puppet sex, yowling and groaning — and singing and dancing. Hunt and company can turn Sesame Street to the Wizard’s Yellow Brick Road.
Overheard in the Lobby: This weekend only, at Salisbury House, Repertory Theater of Iowa will present its annual Shakespeare on the Lawn, “The Merchant of Venice.” That’s June 12-15 only, at 7:30 p.m. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.