Slow Burn Theatre isn’t the best known of South Florida’s musical theater companies, for a couple of reasons. The company performs way out west of Boca Raton in the high-school based West Boca Performing Arts Theater. Its shows don’t run very long, usually just six performances spread out over two weekends. But as its new production of Avenue Q so vibrantly demonstrates, seeking out Slow Burn is so worth the effort.
If you saw 2004’s Tony Award winning best musical on Broadway or later on its tour, you know that creators Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty came up with a funny, touching, often raunchy (not for kids) riff on a show that influenced them all, Sesame Street. The musical mixes human actors and puppets, with the hard-working puppeteers visible alongside their fuzz-and-fabric characters, which include single-rod, double-rod and live-hands puppets. Performing Avenue Q requires special skills (several of the Broadway actors were Sesame Street veterans), sort of like the stage equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy simultaneously. For two hours.
The story they tell is largely about twentysomethings in a low-rent New York neighborhood trying to find their way into true adult life.
Princeton, a guy with a bachelor’s degree in English, is baffled by how to turn his diploma into a career. Kate Monster, an assistant to an elderly kindergarten teacher with an unprintable last name, dreams of opening her own “Monstersori” school. Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist, has no patients, and she’s out of patience with her cheerful out-of-work hubby Brian, an aspiring comedian. Gary Coleman (yes, supposedly that Gary Coleman) is the superintendant of the not-so-nice apartment building. Nicky and Rod, roommates clearly inspired by the more famous Bert and Ernie, have Oscar-Felix lifestyle differences and an ongoing issue over Rod’s refusal to come out. Trekkie Monster doesn’t leave his apartment much due to a certain addiction which he cheerfully acknowledges in the song The Internet Is for Porn. Singer Lucy the Slut is exactly what her name implies. Two cute but dangerous Bad Idea Bears offer advice that leads to just one thing: regret.
That’s a full, complex world for just seven actors and even more puppets to create. But director-choreographer (and costumer) Patrick Fitzwater has drawn intricately shaped, topnotch performances from every young human on the stage.
The four actor-puppeteers shift instantly from character to character, operating two, three, four or more of the terrific puppets created by Rick Peña (based on Rick Lyons’ original designs). Mike Westrich is equally persuasive as the earnest, commitment-phobic leading “man” Princeton and the conflicted, clearly gay Rod. Nicole Piro voices the looking-for-love Kate Monster and bad-girl Lucy, with different body language and facial expressions for each character. Christian Vandepas, who usually performs alongside a glowing Courtney Poston, fashions a gee-whiz voice for Nicky and a lascivious growl for Trekkie Monster.
Trent Stephens is an ebullient presence as Brian, the wannabe comedian. Pamela Stigger plays the late Diff’rent Strokes star (as on Broadway, the role goes to a woman), and though some of her solos wander slightly off pitch, she finds Coleman’s boyish charm. You could make the case that the role of Christmas Eve, which involves playing on Asian stereotypes including pronunciation, should always go to an Asian-American actress. Slow Burn’s choice, Ann Marie Olson, isn’t Asian, but she is funny and fabulous. When she takes the song The More You Ruv Someone to its torchy extreme, she stops the show.
Musical director Manny Schvartzman, set designer Ian T. Almeida, sound designer Traci Almeida and lighting designer Lance Blank all do good work on their pieces of the production puzzle, though the follow spots didn’t always follow the actors perfectly on opening night. Video screens on either side of the stage aren’t large enough or placed properly so that their content, critical to the children’s TV style of the show, can be seen very far back in the large auditorium.
Even so, those little glitches don’t detract from the impact of a terrific production from an increasingly impressive company. Want to see the future of musical theater in South Florida, both on the stage and in the enthusiastic teens-and-up audience? Make the effort to find and savor Avenue Q.