By Barry Reszel
A profane, anachronistic musical theater grudge match on Chicago’s North Side has 1967’s Hair and 2003’s Avenue Q doing battle less than a mile apart for patrons’ entertainment dollars.
Smart money is on Gary Coleman, and he’s been dead four years.
Yes, somehow a living, adult version of diminutive Arnold Jackson from TV’s Diff’rent Strokes still narrates the naughty puppets of Avenue Q in The Mercury Theater’s current production. Talented Donterrio Johnson does the, “Whatchu talkin’ about Willis” honors.
While the character is dated, along with several pieces of the clever and catchy songbook, the first-rate, professional staging from Director L. Walter Stearns is sure to please fans of this R-rated Sesame Street.
With a gifted ensemble cast and terrific orchestra led by Eugene Dizon, Stearns’ puppeteers, led by the lovely and talented Leah Morrow as Kate Monster, Jackson Evans as Princeton and Christine Bunuan as Christmas Eve, take the audience through a comic love story between young adults making their way in the world. Morrow’s “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” is genuinely touching, and the vocals throughout are top notch.
The story itself is punctuated with shock-value songs and references, often hilarious, touching on racism (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), homophobia (“My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”), sex (“You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want…”) and whose life is hardest (“It Sucks to Be Me”). A full synopsis and history may be read here.
Laughter aside, unless the Avenue Q book is freshened up with, say, a Justin Bieber replacing Coleman and new lyrics like, “If you were gay, that’d be OK…we can still marry in most states anyway,” even top-shelf productions like Mercury’s feel so 20th Century. There’s good reason, besides puppet sex, this title isn’t found on many professional marquees.
And while Avenue Q could have the intangibles to enjoy a certain cult following, true fans of the book by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Jeff Marx ought to see this terrific, Equity production while they can.
The same suggestion cannot be made for American Theater Company’s staging of Hair.
There’s simply not much to like about this three-hour homage to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll counterculture of a Greenwich Village hippie tribe amidst the angst of the Vietnam War. A full history and synopsis may be read here.
The 2009 Broadway staging of Hair took home the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical; but Director P.J. Paparelli’s American Theater version is truer to the 1967 original. However, stripped down to its simpler state, and with the benefit of comparison to as-edgy, more entertaining shows staged in the 45 years since (Rent, Book of Mormon and Avenue Q) even an audience of family and friends on opening night was left longing for the show to end.
While it could be interesting to see members of this young, energetic ensemble in other roles, overall vocal quality, especially for an Equity production, is inconsistent and underwhelming. Notable exceptions are Rachael Smith as shy Crissy singing “Frank Mills,” and the powerful Camille Robinson as Dionne, particularly in “White Boys.”
Kudos too, go to Broadway vet Jane Strauss, who commands the show’s best scene as cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead interviewing the tribe.
But beyond these few highlights, and with an unfocused second act dominated by a variety of narcotic hallucinations, there is so little to let the sun shine into the production. This Hair only makes the cramped, uncomfortable seating of American Theater Company feel ever more so.
The performance schedule for “Avenue Q” through October 26th remains: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2 pm and 6:30 pm. From July 9 to October 26th, the performance schedule will be Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5 pm and 8:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $25-$65, and are available online at www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com, over the phone at (773) 325-1700, or in person at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. “Hair” performs Thursdays through Sundays through June 29 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. Tickets are $38 – $43 and available in person at the box office, online at www.actweb.org or by phone at 773-409-4125.
An edited version of this review was first published at makeitbetter.net.