Review: “Avenue Q”

A scene from “Avenue Q” now playing at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave., through Sept. 9. – Brett A. Beiner

RECOMMENDED

Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
When: through Sept. 9
Tickets: $35-$65
Phone: 773-325-1700

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I missed director L.Walter Stearns’ homegrown production of “Avenue Q” at the Mercury Theater Chicago in 2014, so I’m delighted to say that the current reprise of Jeff Witty (book) and Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez’s (music and lyrics) 2003 adult musical spoofing kids’ shows like “Sesame Street’ makes an ideal summer entertainment.

Sure, some of the material is dated. They heyday of the Muppets arguably has passed, so contemporary audiences may not draw the connection between Trekkie Monster and Cookie Monster or Rod and Nicky and Bert and Ernie. Many no longer even remember Gary Coleman, the late child tv actor who sued his parents, and turns up here as the superintendent of the rundown building on the title avenue that’s home to the misfit characters. And the internet has become so much a part of our lives that no one could possibly think that it’s mainly for the consumption of porn. Not to mention cell phones, which happily are relegated to a very minor role.

In addition, content touted as raunchy nearly two decades ago—puppet sex, off-color language—seems tame by today’s standards. The potential shock value of the original, with its then-novel combination of actors and puppets, also has lessened, thanks to the many renditions.

Still, the basic story of hopeful young people trying to find purpose and meaning in their lives, presented with as much sweetness as satire, remains relevant. The calls for tolerance in songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay” are needed now more than ever. The message that helping others instead of wallowing in self pity can make you feel better is evergreen. And the reminder that everything except death and taxes is “For Now” always resonates.

Several actors are returning from the 2014 production, starting with Jackson Evans as Princeton, the college grad who muses “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” before finding a cheap apartment if not a job, and Leah Morrow as Kate Monster, who dreams of leaving her position as a kindergarten teaching assistant and opening a Monstersorri school. They’re both terrific, and as their on-again off-again romance develops, the lines blur between them and the puppets they’re so deftly manipulating (with the help of puppetry coach Rick Lyon).

Designed and created by Russ Walko, the puppets cannily resemble both Muppets and the live actors playing the characters, none more so than Christian Siebert and his blue counterpart as Rod, the uptight investment banker who’s loathe to admit he might be gay and kicks out his slacker roommate Nicky (Dan Smeriglio) for suggesting it, then misses him terribly.

The other main puppets are the irrepressible Trekkie Monster, manipulated and voiced by Jonah D. Winston, and Lucy the Slut, the vamp portrayed by Stephanie Herman. She also puts in a brief appearance as Kate Monster’s puppet boss, Mrs. Thistletwat, and one of the Bad Idea Bears. Smeriglio is the other one of these cute but corrupting creatures, who are so shrill that it’s sometimes hard to understand what they’re saying.

The mere humans include Matthew Miles as Brian, a really bad out-of-work comedian, Audrey Billings as Christmas Eve, his Japanese girlfriend (then wife) who is a therapist with no clients, and David S. Robbins as Coleman.

While the stage seems a bit small at times, Alan Donahue’s scenic design, Dutin L. Derry’s lighting design, Rachel Boylan’s costumes, and Carl Wahlstrom’s sound design serve the show well. So does the five-person unseen band under music director Eugene Dizon.

I think “Avenue Q” would benefit from less shouting and more subtlety, but all in all, two-plus hours on that street of irreverent outsiders is time well spent.