It sucks to be you if you miss the national tour of “Avenue Q” at the Saroyan Theatre.
I’ve seen lots of musicals on Broadway (including “Avenue Q,”), and I see lots of touring shows at the Saroyan. It always delights me when a tour comes close to replicating the quality of the Broadway production. Guess you could say it makes me glad to know that folks in Fresno are getting close — or even within a whisper of the original — to the New York experience.
That’s the case with just about every aspect of this “Avenue Q,” which continues for one more performance tonight. Cheerfully stuffed with almost every provocative theatrical convention you can imagine — rampant profanity, blatant racial offensiveness, hardcore puppet sex, jokes about Republicans, all brilliantly intermingled with the beloved conventions of “Sesame Street” — there were a few audience members who didn’t return after intermission. Which is probably the highest accolade the show can get.
Above: Jacqueline Grabois and Brent Michael DiRoma of the national tour. Photo: John Daughtry / “Avenue Q”
A standout of this production is a wonderful Brent Michael DiRoma, a young actor who has a bright career ahead of him. He plays the puppet roles of Princeton (the amiable college grad eager for his new life adventure who comes to live on Avenue Q) and Rod (the uptight closeted gay investment banker) with a strong voice and a sweet, light, indelible charisma. One of the dilemmas for an audience member early on in “Avenue Q” is deciding whom to watch: the puppet or its human performer. With DiRoma, it’s hard not be drawn to his magnetic stage presence.
Later, a fascinating phenomenon occurs — and this is one of the reasons why I find “Avenue Q” fascinating even on a repeated viewing — that reminds me of the complexity of human sight. It’s as if you use one eye to watch the puppet and the other to watch the performer act out the role, and your brain sort of combines the two. (It reminds me of eye doctors who put a long-distance contact lens in one eye and a close-up lens in the other, and the viewer’s vision somehow gets correctly integrated.) I love how a good “Avenue Q” performer can actually instill human emotions and behavioral nuance in their puppets. At one point in the second act when Princeton listens to a joke told by one of the play’s human characters, I watched the puppet’s face intently, and I could swear that expressions “flashed” across its face — a quick shift from despondence to possible cheer — even though I was in reality looking at vacant cloth eyes. Impressive, indeed.
The other human/puppet cast members are very strong as well, from Jacqueline Grabois’ Kate Monster/Lucy to Jason Heymann’s expert Nicky and Trekkie Monster. Another cast member with a radiant stage presence is Kerri Brackin, sort of the emsemble’s “utility player,” who imbues everything from Trekkie Monster’s left side to a perky Bad Idea Bear with a smooth, confident grace.
My one minor (and it’s very minor) disappointment in the show was with the casting of Nigel Jamaal Clark as Gary Coleman. The two other times I’ve seen the show, a woman with a low, throaty voice has played the role, and perhaps I’m just stuck on tradition, but having a man play the part just doesn’t have the same slightly absurd effect. The song “Schadenfreude,” normally a second-act highlight, just didn’t have the zing it needed.
But overall, this “Avenue Q” soars. The 2003 show is aging well. Not to get too philosophical here, but it combines an upbeat sense of looking toward the future while acknowledging that life can be inexplicable, mundane and scary — and, yes, temporary. If you listen closely to the lyrics of the last song, “For Now,” there’s a bittersweet edge that belies the sunny optimism on stage. One way to compensate for this potential darkness, the musical suggests, is living and laughing in the moment. With “Avenue Q,” you get to do plenty of both.