Review by James Johnson
And we’re back – well, kind of. I wasn’t able to grab Ruth this week for co-hosting duties (she hasn’t been taking my calls), so I decided that instead of recording a new episode where I awkwardly try to have good chemistry with myself (that’s how you go blind), I would instead do this review in much the same way as we have done previous reviews – in text. .
As evidenced by the headline, this is a review of the Raleigh Little Theatre’s final production of the season, “Avenue Q” written by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty. The show, which will end its run on June 25, is essentially Sesame Street for adults. Very crass adults.
The story follows recent college graduate Princeton (puppeteered by Aaron Boles) as he moves into an apartment on Avenue Q, in search of his life’s purpose. Along the way, Princeton makes friends with his new landlord, disgraced child star Gary Coleman (Brandi Parker), new neighbors Rod and Nicky (Bradley Waelbrock and Freddy Perkins, respectively), neighborhood pervert Trekkie Monster (Aubrey Comperatore), married non-puppet couple Christmas Eve (Alex Matsuo) and Brian (Brett Yates), and new love interest Kate Monster (Brett Williams).
Along the way, Princeton faces temptation from a puppet named Lucy the Slut (Lydia D. Kinton) and distraction from the appropriately named Bad Idea Bears (played by Matthew Sheaffer and Mary Bain).
The show has aged quite a bit since its Broadway debut in 2003. For example, there is a song about gifting a love interest a mixtape on CD, and the most notable sign of age, is that Gary Coleman is now very dead, but the themes remain very much relevant and the humor, which revolves around bigotry, sexuality and political correctness, is as timely as ever.
It is hard to point out a particular standout in a cast full of excellent performances, but I have to mention some notable strengths, such as Audrey Comperatore expertly done physical mannerisms for Trekky Monster. Comperatore knows her way around a puppet and should probably get to auditioning for Sesame Street like, yesterday.
Meanwhile, actress Brett Williams’ Kate Monster was the first to stand out to me, due to her ability to get a laugh with just about any line she is given. Kate Monster doesn’t get all the funniest lines in the show, but Williams finds a way to derive laughter from her delivery alone.
Finally, Lucy the Slut’s actress, Lydia D. Kinton, needs to be recognized for the confidence and strength she gave off during every second she was on stage. Kinton’s vocals were outstanding, even if she didn’t get as much time to use them on stage as the rest of the cast.
Honestly – the cast has no real weak link. Every performer gave 100 percent and sang their songs as if the songs had been written with their vocals in mind (Brandi Parker’s performance of “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” is a perfect example of this).
One thing I did take issue with was Alex Matsuo’s performance as Christmas Eve. Matsuo is clearly a very talented actress with a terrific pair of lungs, but the character of Christmas Eve is a pretty blatant caricature of an Asian woman, and even with the show’s attempt at downplaying the seriousness of racism with the song “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist,” this character felt a little too much like something out of a minstrel show.
I assume Matsuo has some Asian heritage in her background, given her last name, but if you have to wear a black babydoll wig to indicate to the audience that you are Asian, then you are turning a race into a costume and it is not asking people to laugh at yourself, it is asking people to laugh at people who don’t look like you.
If at the end of the day, you can take a wig off and not have to deal with people applying negative stereotypes to you based purely on your ethnicity, then you probably shouldn’t have put that wig on to begin with.
I would not place blame on Matsuo, who is spectacularly talented, but on the tone deaf casting director. Obviously, being a minority, it is difficult to cast but in this case, important enough to put in that extra effort in.
If you are doing “Miss Saigon” you may end up with a cast that has a few Hispanic actors, or Japanese actors playing Vietnamese characters, and that’s fine, it’s a big cast and these characters are not making fun of the Vietnamese – but when all you have to do is cast one Asian character and you already know that Asian character is going to be played for laughs at the expense of Asian culture, one would think the casting director would put in a little extra effort to ensure that it doesn’t look like it is someone who does not have to deal with those daily prejudices making fun of people who do.
That is the one flaw I could find in an otherwise excellent, if somewhat dated (though not “Rent” dated), show. Director Jesse R. Gephart did a stellar job blending puppetry, dance, music and even some animation, into a Broadway caliber show and music director Katherine Anderson did such a superb job with a 5-piece orchestra (Anderson on keys, Jordan Hubbard on guitar, Keith Lewis on bass, Tim Wall on percussion and Gregg Gelb on reed) that I had to ask someone after the show if I was listening to prerecorded music.
Everyone on this show should be proud of this production and everyone within vicinity of this theatre should run out and go see it. This is a terrific way to close out the season and it has me eager to see what the RLT has in store for next season.
**** out of 5.
For tickets call 919-821-3111 or go to raleighlittletheatre.org