The national touring company of “Avenue Q,” the Tony-winning primer on adulthood, is shipshape for its Los Angeles engagement. Having assembled a cast as skillful as his Gotham originals, helmer Jason Moore has smoothed over the rougher satirical edges to enhance audience empathy with the characters’ growing pains. Like the skin of its puppets, show is deeply felt. The crowds who Q up for this heartwarming musical treat are going to leave very happy.
Just as “Sesame Street” has been a legendary way station for millions on their journey from infancy to adolescence, “Avenue Q” adopts its forms and conventions to illuminate and crack wise about an even more treacherous life passage, that moment of setting aside feckless youth to take on career, family and responsibility. Tuner pokes merciless fun at the inevitable transition (as Pat Boone might put it) ‘twixt 20 and tedium but is sensitive enough to recognize that when all is said and done, that transition can be carried off with grace.
Jeff Whitty’s book cannily piles on the obstacles to finding oneself, perhaps the most insidious of which are embodied in the Bad Idea Bears, a sweet-talking pair of huggables who appear whenever young Princeton (Robert McClure), a starry-eyed graduate seeking his life’s purpose, is about to make a healthy choice. “Use your parents’ check to get beer!” they cheerlead. “Get a case! You’re on a budget, and you’ll save if you buy in bulk!”
These manifestations of pure id clearly struck a chord with the opening night L.A. audience, as did the travails of hometown favorite Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), the “Diff’rent Strokes” star now serving as building super who fears that “I already achieved my damn purpose in life, and from then on, I’ve been on a slow, tiresome walk to the grave.” Typical of this sunny touring version, the bitterness that crept into such lines on Broadway has been toned down in favor of unquenchable optimism, and the show is much more likable for it.
Troupe’s warmth is infectious, but the manipulation of Rick Lyon’s puppets could be its strongest suit. Switching between totally dissimilar voices, with their heads in perfect sync with the puppet heads, McClure and Kelli Sawyer each pull off an astonishing double act, he as idealistic Princeton and uptight investment banker Rod, she as both the angel (Kate) and devil (Lucy the Slut) sitting on Princeton’s shoulders.
Christian Anderson has to work even harder at the more complex puppets Nicky and Trekkie Monster and with a more elaborate repertoire of gestures, yet the aud never sees him sweat, his utter ease doubtless abetted by unflappable partner Minglie Chen’s readiness to lend a hand (literally).
All tech elements are superior with the exception of the balance between orchestra and voices, a problem that reportedly surfaced once production left its initial cozy confines in San Diego’s Spreckels Theater. Cast takes pains with phrasing such that Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s cleverer lyrics can be understood, and by act two, the soft crooning of the finale “For Now” comes through fine, but even with several hundred Ahmanson seats blocked off for intimacy’s sake, more fine-tuning at the sound board is in order.