By Patrick O’Brien
Avenue Q has done pretty damn well for itself.
Any musical that can pull off a surprise Best Musical Tony win over a surefire juggernaut (Wicked)—with full-on puppet nudity, no less—must have some magic to it, even if the titular street is far removed from Oz.
Any musical that can net a regional revival? Doubly so. Mercury Theater Chicago has just picked the lint off their smash 2014 production, and nothing can pull it down. (Last Wicked reference. At least here. Remember: there’s a song called “Schadenfreude.”)
Part of Avenue Q‘s magic is certainly the tittering glee of watching good ol’ wholesome Sesame Street take it up the puppet hole. Q’s audiences already grasp numbers and colors and sharing. So, how about real lessons like, say, not choosing a useless college degree? How to get your closeted friend to just come to terms with it already? The illicit joys of a quality ethnic joke? The illicit joys of other people’s’ misery? The Internet’s sordid raison d’etre?
The other part is that, for all its tongue-in-cheekery, it really is wholesome entertainment with a solid moral: there’s things in life you have to figure out for yourself, and it will be daunting and scary, “but it’s only temporary.” Expect no less from composer-lyricist Robert Lopez, who has as much skin in Disney’s game as he does in Matt Stone’s and Trey Parker’s. (And now has an EGOT to show for it.)
And expect plenty from a cast of quadruple-threats (singing, dancing, acting and puppeteering), many of whom reprise their roles from 2014. With Jackson Evans and Leah Morrow leading the way as the jobless, guileless friends-or-something-more, Princeton and Kate, respectively, you can’t lose watching either their great big expressive faces or their foam rubber doppelgangers.
Other puppets, you can’t even begin to look away from ‘em. Jonah D. Winston takes the show-stealing role of horndog Trekkie Monster and more than rises to the challenge. And Stephanie Herman, another 2014 veteran, va-va-va-vamps it up as “burlesque” “starlet” Lucy the Slut.
There’s some flesh-and-blood humans to round things out, too. Or, at the very least, David S. Robbins as Gary Coleman, child star turned slum superintendent/guest star, embraces his lot in life as a living reminder that it can always be worse. Audrey J. Billings’s Christmas Eve is sensibility in the most politically incorrect package, which says something.
If Mercury wanted to, Avenue Q could probably run for a season or more and we’d be all the better for it. Its old-school brickwork blends well with Alan Donahue’s worn-out borough design, and L. Walter Stearns’ direction is perfectly scaled to the venue. It’s barbed, but not acidic. Sweet, but not diabetic. Grounded, even when the puppets are canoodling loudly and unapologetically. Honest, and brutally so, especially since Trekkie can look everyone in the eye and know what they really do online…
When you’re done, grab your ticket. Avenue Q may be a revival, but it’s still only temporary.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “Avenue Q” through December 30 at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett A. Beiner.