Review: Playhouse Merced’s Avenue Q is a must see (for adults)!

Lucy The Slut (Niki MaGill), Trekkie Monster (Chris Ingle), and Princeton (James McIntyre)

With songs like “The Internet Is For Porn” and “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” you may be wondering what kind of puppets have taken over Playhouse Merced.  Though the content is vastly different from previous musicals Playhouse Merced has recently put on like Gypsy, Beauty and the Beast, and The Adams Family, the quality and entertainment value far exceeds what one would expect from a community theater.  Avenue Q has raised the bar and it’s cast will leave you in pain.  Let this be a warning to you: do NOT go see the musical after enjoying a nice burger and delicious root beer at H&W.  The cramps you will have later from laughing so hard remind you why your parents told you to wait 30 minutes after eating before you go swimming.  The phrase “side-splitting laughter” is not an exaggeration when describing how funny this musical is.

The story goes like this: Princeton (a puppet) has just graduated from college and moves to New York on Avenue Q.  He meets others in the neighborhood, some are puppet “humans” are some are puppet “monsters.”  His friends all struggle with finding jobs, relationships, and discovering what their purpose is in life.  Through this process they discover things about their new friends they didn’t know about, commiserate in each’s company, and argue (sing) about which one of them sucks the most.

This “puppet” show/musical is not like anything you may have seen before.  The puppets are not hiding behind objects and showing only their upper bodies.  There is also no ventriloquism.  Each puppet is operated by a cast member (some by two), and the puppet and actor become one.

Playhouse Merced and director Robert Hypes did an incredible job casting this production.  Though I had never seen the musical before, I bought and quickly memorized the soundtrack when it was first premiered on Broadway in 2013.  Every single time a new puppet was introduced and started talking or singing, my mind was blown.  The voices and mannerisms of these local actors and actresses sounded EXACTLY like they did on the soundtrack.  How the heck they were able to do this, I have no idea.  It truly left me in shock for the first half act of the show.

Princeton (James McIntyre) and Kate Monster (Rachel Pearre)

College graduate Princeton, played by James McIntyre, asked (sang) the question that I have heard from college students before: What do you do with a BA in English?  Realizing that he has finished school, gotten his degree, but doesn’t know what to do with his life, McIntyre’s performance throughout the show was excellent.  In addition to the obvious acting and singing the cast would normally do, they now had to do it while operating the puppets mouth, hands, and make the puppets body and expressions match what the humans would have otherwise had to do it it was them telling the story.

Kate Monster, played by Rachel Pearre, quickly fell in love with Princeton, and her ability to sustain such a beautiful vocal tone and range despite having to change her voice to that high-pitched, somewhat juvenile tone that Kate Monster needed to have was remarkable.  The perfect harmony Pearre and McIntyre had throughout the show, and their ability to belt it out when needed, and back down into a delicate soft tone was sheer talent.  Merced may not be that big of a city, but the talent that exists in our community is incredible.

Nicky (Matt Capron) and Gary Coleman (LaTia Winfrey)

This is NOT a show you should bring young children to.  Older children (16+) would enjoy it, but if you bring your son or daughter who is around that age, you may not want to sit with them.  Both of you may feel pretty awkward during the show, especially when Princeton and Katie Monster are naked (only the puppets…the humans kep their clothes on) and have sex right on the stage, all while Gary Coleman, played by LaTia Winfrey, sings the song “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want” (when you’re making love).  This scene produced the only small disappointment I had in the show, as  it was very difficult to hear her sing because the “puppet sex” was so loud.  I knew what she was singing because of my prior knowledge of the lyrics, but the words may have been lost to others who were hearing this for the first time.  About halfway through the song, the volume between the two things balanced out.  That being said, this was a top-notch performance, and Winfrey as Gary Coleman nailed each of the many punch lines she had.

Katy Uyeno as Christmas Eve (that is her actual name) and Chris Battisti as Brian were the only “human” characters in the musical.  Uyeno’s mastery of the broken English and stereotypical Japanese accent and struggles with saying the letter R was spot on, and she certainly stole the show a few times and left the audience laughing.

Rod (Michael Esquibel) and Nicky (Matt Capron)

Nicky, played by Matt Capron, delivered a hilarious treat when he sang “If You Were Gay” to his roommate Rod, played by Michael Esquibel, while Rod was taking a bath. Esquibel nailed the anger that his puppet Rod displayed during the song.  Not only was esquibel’s face turning red with fury as he tried to deny that he was gay, but his skill in making his puppet show those emotions was equally great.  I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but the message in the song sung by Carpon and Esquibel is both funny and enlightening.

Lucy The Slut (Niki MaGill)

Every love story has to have an evil person to get in the way, and Niki MGill’s puppet named Lucy The Slut” was superb! None of the puppets had a lower body or legs, yet McGill’s ability to make Lucy The Slut walk with attitude even without legs was great! Spoiler alert: if you sit in the front row, you might get an opportunity to have a very close and personal encounter with Lucy.  If any of the audience members were trying to convince their bladders to hold out until intermission, McGill as Lucy probably succeeded in making some of those bladders leak a little bit as the audience roared with laughter for an extended period of time.

Princeton (James McIntyre) and the Bad Idea Bears (Jesse Stofle and Liz Phillips)

The two “Bad Idea Bears,” brought to life by Jesse Stofle and Liz Philips, embodied the struggle with people may have with their inner conscious, except in this case there was no good guy, only two bad guys who loved leading the other characters into very bad choices.  Again, the superb ability of Stofle and Philips to make their puppets have such convincing body movements and expressions was a treat.

Though her time on stage was short, Mrs. Thistletwat, played by Jessica Dimpel, was another job well done.  She is the kindergarten teacher that Kate Monster works as an aide for, and when she asked Kate Monster to sub for her for “a few hours while I go get a new heart” was great.  Again, don’t want to give away the ending of how that experience went, but Dimpel didn’t let her short time on stage be an excuse for sub-par acting, as she nailed her character with the same excellence that the rest of the cast did.

Brian (Chris Battisti), Trekkie Monster (Chris Ingle) and Gary Coleman (LaTia Winfrey)

Every story needs a hero, and Trekkie Monster, played by Chris Ingle, was the guy.  Though Trekkie Monster has a serious problem with porn, Ingle’s ability to have the very low raspy voice yet still sing on pitch was the little cherry on top of a musical-filled sundae.

The four-member musical pit did a wonderful job, as did the rest of the technical crew, and the set design by Corey Strauss was yet another perfect Playhouse Merced transformation.

Playhouse Merced has taken community theater to a whole new level with their production of Avenue Q, and if you like to laugh and are not easily offended and have even the slightest doubt in your mind of whether or not you would enjoy watching this, please take my advice and see it!  You will NOT be disappointed.  Yes, there are some bad words, but they are relatively rare and you hear a lot worse in PG-13 movies.  The one scene with the puppets naked making love may be what pushes this to the M for mature audiences rated category, but again, these are puppets, and the show is much more about the life of the characters and lessons they learn than it is a provocative production that would make some people feel morally unethical to watch.  You definitely don’t want to bring your children to this very different puppet show, but you will not regret your decision to attend within the first 10 minutes of the show.

You have four more opportunities to hurt your sides from laughing so hard.  Get your tickets early before they sell out (and based on what I saw, by the time word gets out from those who have seen it about how great it is, it will probably be sold out pretty quickly).

Sunday, May 7 at 2:00 pm
Friday, May 12 at 7:30 pm
Saturday, May 13 at 7:30 pm
Sunday, May 13 at 2:00 pm

Tickets are $22, or $10 with a valid student ID.  To purchase tickets, go to www.playhousemerced.com or call the Box Office at 209-725-8587.

*photos courtesy of Playhouse Merced’s Shawn Overton