Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston, MA) Comedy is a game of milliseconds. The difference between a good laugh and a belly laugh is all in the timing. If you don’t land the gag just right, the joke can fall flat. Lyric Stage’s production of Avenue Q is very funny, but it could have been crack-a-rib hilarious.
The script and song are the closest you can come to a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Take the earnestness of Sesame Street, mash it with the slacker sensibilities of Friends and the crowd can’t help but laugh. The script also achieves that rare feat of being breezy while delivering a great life lesson, in this case that most of us have to soldier on without a grand purpose. Princeton (puppeteered by John Ambrosino) moves to Avenue Q after college; he’s hoping to find his life’s ambition, but he has an uneasy feeling about the future. His life quickly intertwines with the lives of his neighbors, both human and puppet, including a budding love affair with an earnest teacher named Kate Monster (puppeteered by Erica Spyres). Each character has his or her hang-ups, from a pair of roommates who can’t admit their love for one another to a building superintendent who tries to keep his dignity after life as a child star. Their problems are handled tactlessly with wicked humor and un-P.C. song.
The cast-members of this production are all strong actors, but they can’t seem to use their talents to create a strong cast. There’s a lack of cohesion that seems evident most during the songs. Diction and volume often are a problem, and sometimes the audience has to strain to hear the joke. Cast-member Davron S. Monroe’s voice is so strong that he seems compelled to tone it down to not leave the rest of the cast behind. One wonders why director Spiro Veloudos didn’t mic the actors individually and then adjust their volumes accordingly. Meanwhile, Phil Tayler swallows his beautiful voice to create a pitch-perfect impression of the Sesame Street character of Ernie for his puppet Nicky. Tayler’s imitative voice style works best with the obscene Cookie Monster knock-off of Trekkie Monster, but the show might have been better served with less of a quiet Ernie and more of an audible Nicky. When Tayler drops the swallowed vocal style for Nicky and harmonizes with other cast-members, he provides the best musical moments of the show.
There are other little moments of discomfort throughout the play that extend beyond the songs, including a newspaper accidentally dropped that both cast members reach for at the same time and a canopy that comes undone. Most of the cast seems to be working hard and walking a tightrope, rather than listening to each other. Erica Spyres, however, continues her strong work with Lyric with her take on Kate Monster; her comfort with the material is evident. Kate Monster can believably go from cute to profane within the blink of an eye.
Despite the missed opportunities, this play is nearly 100 percent fun and well worth the price of admission. (A flawed near-masterpiece is sometimes harder to cut slack for than a middling production.) Really, how can you go wrong with song titles like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)”? And then picture puppets singing it and you know why you’ve got to get your ass down to Avenue Q.