Two new Broadway shows, running concurrently, are each made extraordinary by having on their stages two different players each portraying the same character. In "Avenue Q," recently moved from Off-Broadway to On, live actors appear as human individuals and as the side-by-side manipulators of a puppet company.
In the musical "Big River," some characters are portrayed simultaneously by two sets of performers, some with dazzling American Sign Language communication skills.
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 and around "Avenue Q." The delightful new musical that was a hit Off-Broadway has moved to Broadway. It remains considerably more than a stepping stone away from "Sesame Street."
What is remarkable is how the show has been spruced up to be brighter and more expansive for the big time. Although this is a show in which live people interact and co-habit with puppets, it is not a show for children. This despite the fact that all the characters real and fabricated and without exception are charming, original, witty, and lovable. But they do have to deal with such adult issues as sexuality, paranoia, jealousy, and insecurity. This prompts some rather serious, as well as hilarious, situations in this "outer borough."
Creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Mark (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book) have created a virtual spoof of the popular children’s television show that follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the denizens of a really unique neighborhood. There is Gary Coleman (a ribbing of the real one, formerly of "Diff’rent Strokes," now a gubernatorial candidate, amusingly played as a real person by Natalie Venetia Belcon). After being swindled out of all his money by his parents, Coleman is now the superintendent of a run-down apartment building. Belcon and the company have a winner with "Schadenfreude," a sardonic song that echoes the joy one feels upon seeing the misfortunes of others.
The closest this show gets to having a hero is in the person of Princeton (John Tartaglia), a recent college graduate ("I Wish I Could Go Back to College") who finds it easier to fall in love than to find himself. The object of his affection is Kate Monster (Stephanie D’Abruzzo) who hates her assistant kindergarten teacher’s job, but dreams of someday running her own "Monstersory School" for monster children. Also among D’Abruzzo’s multiple character assignments is playing Kate’s rival, Lucy, the neighborhood slut-cum-chanteuse.
Then there is the uneasy tension created between roommates, the straight Nicky (Rick Lyon) and the closeted gay Rod (Tartaglia, who also plays Princeton), and defensively and touchingly sings about "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada." One of the more inscrutable and loveable characters is a hairy Trekkie Monster (Lyon), whose gruff facade but underlying goodness and generosity is belied only by his addiction to porno on the Web.
Personally, I was addicted to the performances of Ann Harada, a Japanese-American who plays a character whose name is Christmas Eve, a therapist without a patient and Jordan Gelber, who plays Brian, her live-in-lover and would-be stand-up comic. Harada’s strong voice, notable for its thick Japanese accent, stops the show with her torch song "The More You Ruv Somebody." Also outrageously funny is Gelber’s solo "I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today" (no explanation necessary). Into the mix is a pair of cutesy but cruel baby bears who hover over the characters as invisible alter egos and attempt to lead the characters astray ("Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist").
The songs, like the theme of the show, resonate not only melodically, but also with moral and ethical values. The appeal of this warm-hearted musical lies as much in the smart lyrics and buoyant music as it does in 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, 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.
Avenue Q , John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street, New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. $46.25 & $91.25.
What happens to a musical when the orchestra suddenly stops playing, the actors stop singing, and all that can be witnessed is the entire company continuing through the uplifting "Waiting for the Light to Shine," using only American sign language? The answer is that it is a breathtaking and almost transcendent experience, as it takes us by surprise in the second act of the new production of "Big River."
Bravo to director choreographer Jeff Calhoun, who knew what he was doing so that those of us that can hear would get a sampling of what theater means to those who can’t hear. Up to that point, this lively revival of the late Roger Miller (book and lyrics) and William Hauptman (book, adapted from the novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain) musical is as much enhanced by the simultaneous signing as it is by the fine singing and performing.
The arrival of "Big River," a co-production of the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theater in association with the Mark Taper Forum, in this manner makes it more of an event than you might imagine. The 18-year-old musical never aspired to probe the deeper social resonance of the rambling novel. And Miller’s pleasantly twangy score never really aligned itself with the text. But some of the satire and sagacity of the source does manage to come through mainly due to the terrific cast of both hearing and hearing-impaired. With the amount of robust signing going on, there is little need for traditional choreography. And believe me you won’t miss it.
Tyrone Giordano plays Huck with an unforced naturalism that is matched by the terrific Daniel Jenkins (he played Huck on Broadway in 1985) who gives Huck his voice. The multi-talented (check out the banjo) Jenkins also plays Twain, as a narrator on the sidelines. Michael McElroy plays and sings the role Jim the runaway slave. His striking good looks, stature, and magnificent baritone voice add considerable dramatic weight to the production. These are but two of the 18 actors who, either able to speak or not, revitalize a show that seemed destined to just meander down the Mississippi. Four stars.
Big River , American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $26.25 to $91.25. Extended to September 21.
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