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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Jim Henson’s Muppets might get apoplexy, or at least
blush a little, if they saw what their second cousins once removed
are doing on "Avenue Q," the wonderful new adult musical that
is considerably more than a stepping stone away from Sesame Street.
The puppets that co-habit with humans in this hilarious new musical
are without exception charming original, witty and lovable. The rampant
sex, paranoia, jealousy and insecurities that prompt some rather serious
goings on in an "outer borough" is obviously too much for
mere humans to handle alone.
So creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Mark (music and lyrics) and Jeff
Whitty (book) have augmented the human element with the most endearing
puppets and humans to grace a stage since "Carnival." This
strictly-for-grownups spoof of Sesame Street follows the fortunes
and misfortunes of the denizens of a really unique neighborhood. There
is Gary Coleman (a ribbing of the real one from "Diff’rent Strokes,"
riotously played as a real person by Natalie Venetia Belcon), a super
of a run-down apartment building who vents about how he was swindled
out of all his money by his parents. Belcon shines in a showstopper
called "Schadenfreude," a sardonic song that echoes the joy
one feels upon seeing the misfortunes of others.
As close as this show get to having a hero is Princeton (John Tartaglia),
a recent college graduate who finds it easier to fall in love than
to find himself, as he sings "I Wish I Could Go Back To College."
The object of his affection is Kate Monster (Stephanie D’Abruzzo)
who hates her teaching job, but dreams of someday running her own
"Monstersory School" for monster children. Also among D’Abruzzo’s
multiple character assignments is playing Lucy, the neighborhood slut/seductress
and Kate’s rival.
Then there is the uneasy tension created between roommates Nicky and
Rod. Although Rick Lyon normally plays Nicky and other characters,
I saw Phoebe Kreutz due to an injury sustained by Lyon during previews.
Lyon, nevertheless supplied the voices. Nicky and Rod’s (Tartaglia)
problem arises with Nicky who is openly gay while Rod is in denial,
as revealed in "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada," a comic
gem. One of the more inscrutable and lovable characters is a hairy
Trekkie Monster (Kreutz instead of Lyon), whose tenderhearted goodness
and generosity is belied only by his addiction to porno on the Web.
Of the more delightfully dysfunctional characters are Christmas Eve
(Ann Harada) and her live-in lover/would-be stand-up comic Brian (Jordan
Gelber). Harada’s strong voice notable for its thick Japanese accent,
especially in the side-splittingly funny "The More You Ruv Somebody,"
adds to the fun. Even more outrageously funny is Gelber’s solo "I’m
Not Wearing Underwear Today" (no explanation necessary). Into
the mix is a pair of cute but cruel baby bears who hover over the
characters as invisible alter egos and attempt to lead the characters
astray. Going astray has its benefits as when the gathering owns up
to their flaws in "Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist."
The songs, like the theme of the show, resonate with moral and ethical
values. The appeal of this warm-hearted musical lies in its artfully
and fancifully created characters, all of whom learn about life and
love as they share their problems and expose their flaws and weaknesses.
Under Jason Moore’s exuberant direction, and with a score that lifts
one’s spirit (in this time of need), the creatures and creators of
Avenue Q invite you into a truly inviting neighborhood (designed to
expressionistic perfection by Anna Louizos). It’s one you don’t want
to leave. Four stars. Don’t miss.
— Simon Saltzman
York, 212-432-7250. Tickets $20 to $55.
In Frank McGuinness’ 1985 play, "Observe The Sons
Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme," now having its American
premiere at Lincoln Center, inexperienced young members of an Irish
Protestant platoon fighting for the British in World War I, are seen
preparing for their first battle. It is on the eve of the Battle of
the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of that long and bloody war.
Here eight not especially compatible volunteers, sharing a bunker,
vent their deepest fears, insecurities, and anger, in heated, soul-baring
conflicts that trigger and expose some very troubling personal histories.
While this rather conventional though tautly written play is set in
1915, one is hard pressed not to relate all that is said and done
to the incendiary present. The various and diverse backgrounds of
the men, their often confounding reasons for enlisting — be it
a sense of service to God and country, a desire to serve their own
romantic notions, or to merely satisfy a hunger to be heroic —
are seen in flashbacks and the present. Under the direction of Nicholas
Martin, the acting of the all-male ensemble is uniformly (no pun intended)
excellent. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
— Simon Saltzman
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65 Street, New York.
$60. For tickets ($60) call 212-239-6200.
If one has to endure a course in medieval romance, I
can’t think of anyone with more qualifications to preside over it
than Dublin professor Dr. James Scattergood, beautifully acted by
Brian Murray, whose passion and dedication to his subject is observed
in Anto Howard’s new play (a world premiere production of MCC Theater
at the Samuel Beckett Theater on Theater Row). In this sweet but never
saccharine, play, Scattergood’s influence goes well beyond the merely
Addressing his Trinity College students — in this instance the
audience — as the play begins, he attends to instilling his own
intoxication with chivalrous behavior into their hearts and minds.
One of his more attentive students is Brendan Hillard (T.R. Knight),
who appears particularly in need of the professor’s inspiration. It
seems that Hillard, while academically brilliant, is painfully shy
and handicapped with a severe stutter. He is, however, a whiz at memorizing
the text upon which Scattergood, otherwise known at "Dr. Love"
by his students, uses as a basis for his own philosophy of life and
love. Needing some personal advice from the master, who is already
acknowledged as notorious at the college since an ill-fated affair
there years ago, he goes to the professor’s study.
Hillard, it seems, has gone gaga over Miss Regan (Tari Signor), a
gregarious free spirit whose initial friendliness toward Hillard is
taken as a come-on. Hillard is as desperate to learn the rules and
the right moves of romancing and chivalry from the master, as we are
to listen to Murray pontificate with those luxuriant tones and a sense
of haute grandeur that are the realm of this ever charming actor.
Scattergood, who is rarely without a glass of wine in his hand (Irish,
you know), is delighted and flattered to offer a private tutorial
to this emotionally disturbed young man who is possessed with the
same ardor that spurred him on in his youth.
Scattergood’s support and advice is perhaps too well taken by Hillard,
who has begun to embroider a relationship that could possibly be more
fantasy than fact. If Howard’s rather delightful play includes twists
and turns that have been foreshadowed, they provide ample opportunities
for three fine actors to create a touching experience. Murray, in
particular, embodies the authoritarian scholar with poignancy. The
book-stuffed library (realistically designed by Hugh Landwehr) where
Scattergood teaches his student on the ways of a knight, also becomes
the place where Miss Regan is destined to discover to what extent
she has become the object of Hillard’s desire.
The beauty of the play can be seen in the way Murray appears both
condescending and warm, but sadly without the ability to see though
Hillard’s misguided attempts to win Miss Regan’s heart. Signor has
only two scenes to be interactive, but she does create a character
that is both brash and enticing. Under Doug Hugh’s sensitive direction,
the play moves with polite determination to reflect its romantic themes.
At turns, funny and sad, "Scattergood" is a surprise delight
and a very auspicious debut for its author. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
New York, 212-279-4200. $45.
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