Puppets Provide Pleasant Distraction from Politics

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The residents of “Avenue Q,” now playing at the Broward Center. Credit: Patrick Fitzwater.

If you’re still feeling down about last week’s election results, then head down to “Avenue Q” at the Broward Center for a healthy dose of optimism.

The 2004 Tony Award-winner, a revival of Slow Burn Theatre Company’s 2012 production in the Abdo New River Room, is a sort of “Sesame Street” for adults, occupied by a colorful cadre of people and puppets who sing and dance about the challenges of life:

As the lights come up, Princeton (Rick Pena), a fresh, wide-eyed college grad with a seemingly useless degree in English, arrives in the neighborhood. He is greeted by Kate Monster (Nicole Piro), a furry kindergarten teaching assistant; roommates Rod (Pena) and Nicky (Christian Vandepas), a la Bert and Ernie; wannabe standup comedian Brian (Andrew Rodriguez Trina) and his wife, Christmas Eve (Ann Marie Olson); and Trekkie Monster (Vandepas). The superintendent of their sad block is aged child actor Gary Coleman (Juanita B. Green) of “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Together, they sing the first of many hilariously didactic songs, “It Sucks to Be Me,” realizing that nobody has it easy in the real world. Other catchy tunes from Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx include, “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.”

Punctuated with “Sesame Street”-inspired cartoons, the characters learn the lessons of life, thanks to Jeff Whitty’s very adult book. Princeton desperately seeks his purpose in the world, while Kate searches for love. Nicky tries to help Rod come out the closet and Brian and Christmas Eve must deal with the give-and-take of marriage. Making those decisions more challenging are encounters with a floozy lounge singer, Lucy the Slut (Piro), and the Bad Idea Bears (Vandepas and Lissa Grossman Comess), who are cute and cuddly, but hardly innocent.

The show concludes with “For Now,” one of those cynically optimistic songs you can only find on Broadway that reminds everyone that life may be unsatisfying right now, but nothing is permanent—not your hair and not the president. (The original called out President George Bush, but director Patrick Fitzwater saw the need to substitute Donald Trump into the song lyrics.) And it works, as evidenced at a matinee production on Sunday afternoon.

The ensemble cast, under direction of Fitzwater and music director Manny Schvartzmann, tackle the material with gusto. The emotions on the puppeteers’ faces attest to their passion for the show. Pena, Piro and Vandespas especially shine as they tackle multiple roles, some simultaneously, and in puppet voices. During ensemble numbers, the entire cast manipulates the puppets easily and still manage to convincingly perform Fitzwater’s choreography.

The puppets, also designed by Pena, are wide-eyed, emotive and every bit constructed with the same quality as the Broadway originals. Sean McClelland’s two-story set is likewise a worthy tribute to its inspiration with windows and doors that open for appearances by both actors and puppets and reveal the apartments of the residents. The show is accentuated by creative lighting effects from Jayson Tomasheski and the entire show benefits from the intimate setting of the New River Room, with the audience seated at tables, front and center, an integral, connected part of the action on stage.

Slow Burn Theatre Co. presents “Avenue Q” at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale through Nov. 20. Tickets are $45 at BrowardCenter.org. The production transfers to the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center in Aventura, Dec. 1 – 4, AventuraACC.org, and the Crest Theatre at Old School Square in Delray Beach, Dec. 16 – 18, OldSchoolSquare.org.


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