Theater Review: AVENUE Q (Mercury Theater Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on June 30, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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OPEN SESAME SEASON

Peter Pan never grew up. Likewise Alice in Wonderland, the Hardy Boys, Freddy the Pig, Nancy Drew, Huck Finn, or Donald Trump. It’s a pity people do: Why must grown-ups leave behind innocence and imagination after we mistakenly blunder into adulthood? You can take it with you — when it’s Avenue Q. This 2003 musical is, of course, the unofficial sequel to Sesame Street, PBS’s beloved puppet pageant/children’s show. We need it like a fix.

As a valued video learning tool, the school-style series remains packed with little lessons and set in a remarkably unthreatening neighborhood in New York City. Songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks’ ultimately reassuring update fulfills it with a vengeance: Happily, it just got a perfectly polished and fully felt revival. Mercury Theater’s much-praised reprise of their 2014 production (169 performances!) is a gift you take at total worth. Nine performers, invaluably enriched by wondrous puppets by Russ Walko and Max Maxin IV’s clever projections, serve their stories splendidly.

A coming-of-age saga that treats time’s troubles with earnest honesty, Mercury’s grown-up “Sesame Street” works like a marvel. It tests the often-idealistic presumptions of its source — each kid is special and opportunities are unlimited — against the wake-up call known as life. Jim Henson’s make-believe aside, we are not, after all, masters of all we survey or the center of the universe. As the show knows and shows, authentic existence is impossible unless you discard perilously enabling fictions, including “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.”

Interesting digression: It’s intriguing how much Avenue Q mirrors Into the Woods: Both shows depict erroneously hopeful characters who must overcome inaccurate expectations (what Ibsen called “life lies”) to band together for or against some common cause or threat. What they lose in false hopes generated by egotism and narcissism they gain in shared sacrifice, creative collaboration, and a literal common sense. Like Voltaire and Bernstein’s Candide, they need to abandon phony dreams of unbridled optimism — and just make their garden grow.

Back to Mercury’s “wake up” musical: Looking for “Purpose,” Princeton (Jackson Evans) discovers how unprepared he is (“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”) for the rest of his days. Aiming for Avenue A but settling for Avenue Q, he meets its equally life-challenged residents: Judging by their contagious anthem “It Sucks to Be Me,” it’s definitely no street of dreams; but still, as the ballad bellows, “Fantasies Come True.”

And here’s where Marx and Lopez’s sardonically updated songs and Jeff Whitty’s witty book underline the vulnerability of idealism by exposing illusions: “The Internet Is for Porn,” “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love),” “Schadenfreude” (makes you feel good about others’ sorrows), “If You Were Gay” (it would be okay), “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment”, and, of course, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (possibly the Republican national anthem).

Wrong assumptions lead to unnecessary disillusionment, declares a wise show where there’s no problem that a helpful song sung by sufferers in solidarity can’t cure. Preston’s possible girlfriend Kate Monster (Leah Morrow), a kindergarten teaching assistant who wants to start a “Monstersori” school for “people of fur,” just needs to cross that “fine, fine line” between friendship and love. Would-be comic Brian (Matthew Miles) has to push himself beyond underwear jokes. And, yes, his Japanese fiancée Christmas Eve (Audrey Billings) has anger issues but it’s nothing a marriage can’t manage.

A closeted Republican (“My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”), Rod (Christian Siebert) fancies his determinedly straight roommate Nicky (Dan Smeriglio), a slacker wanna-be — which means he must settle for a look-alike, gay crush named Ricky. Trekkie Monster (Jonah D. Winston) can break his porn habit to become Kate’s biggest benefactor. The show’s bad influences — the party-crazy Bad Idea Bears (Stephanie Herman and Daniel Smeriglio) and Lucy the Slut (also Herman) — grab for ethical relief through, respectively, Scientology and chastity. Finally, troubled former child-star Gary Coleman (David S. Robbins, an exact double) is the smiling “super” who presides over the healing. Kevin Bellie’s choreography keeps the joint jumping.

By the end all the Q clan can be sure of is just what’s “For Now.” Alas or hurrah, sooner or later we all leave Sesame Street to move onto Avenue Q. But, as director L. Walter Stearns’ 140-minute triumph reveals, there are worse addresses to learn about life. Like maybe your own…

photos by Brett A. Beiner

Avenue Q
Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport
Wed – Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8:30; Sun at 3
Sun at 7:30 beginning July 22
ends on September 9, 2018
for tickets, call 773.325.1700
or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit  Theatre in Chicago

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