Sunday afternoon, the SUNY New Paltz Department of Theatre Arts wrapped a rambunctious run of nearly completely sold-out shows for “Avenue Q,” which is a heartwarming, tear-jerking coming of age story with a fun twist: puppets.
This musical, directed by professor Bria Walker, immerses the audience in the lives of those living on a shabby block in New York City creatively named “Avenue Q.” The show’s precocious protagonist is recent college graduate Princeton. Princeton finds a home on “Avenue Q,” as he and his diverse cast of neighbors navigate the struggles of day-to-day life: sexuality, love, money, race and finding time to jerk off when you have a roommate.
The show kicks off with an all-too-relatable line, as Princeton, still donning his cap and gown, inquires of the audience “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” The audience was rapt straight from the get-go, and remained entranced as they were introduced to the other wonky inhabitants of “Avenue Q.”
“Avenue Q” focuses on some very pertinent contemporary themes, making adept commentary on heavy subjects such as race with numbers like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” Director Bria Walker commented on this subject in the show’s program.
“Art should not be afraid to offend. Art should make you ask yourself questions,” Walker said. “For example, What am I a little bit racist about? Notice I didn’t say, ‘Am I a little bit racist?’ Cause, face it, you are.”
The show forces the audience to reexamine their prejudices by addressing them directly and forcefully. We all have subconscious biases, and the cast of “Avenue Q” superbly conveyed this. Everybody is flawed, and admitting it is the first step to combatting these flaws. As the chorus tells us, “If we all could just admit / That we are racist, a little bit / Even though we all know that it’s wrong / Maybe it would help us get along!”
“Avenue Q” also tackles the difficult subject of sexuality as another main character, Rod, struggles to accept his sexuality. However, unbeknownst to him, his friends and neighbors already know he’s gay and accept him for who he is. Actor Aidan Countryman did a fantastic job of conveying Rod’s inner conflicts, ensuring that the audience saw both Rod’s strengths and weaknesses. Really, every single actor in this production did a fantastic job. Personally, I was particularly blown away by the performances of Jackie Evans (Kate Monster), bringing sensitivity and snarl to an endearing female lead, and Maya Brennan (Christmas Eve) who taught the audience lessons in consolation, kindness and the problems Asian American immigrants face.
In addition to discussions of race and politics, “Avenue Q” also delves into the everyday difficulties of being a person such as paying bills, finding a job and navigating the dating scene at various ages. The writers of the play, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, succinctly cover so many important subjects and challenges that come along with growing up. Lopez and Marx bring us into their world, a brick city block with surprises around every corner. The show utilizes projection screens on various parts of the set to display a background for relevant themes.
For example, Princeton struggles throughout the show to find his “capital P” Purpose, which he believes could fall into his lap at any moment. This is, of course, not how life works, and the projectors play out an after-school special type clip with fun (yet somewhat unsettling) animations, typing together childhood, adulthood and the wackiness in between with a big fat bow. These projections tied the show together, preserving the audience’s connection to the at times multitudinous storylines.
This musical toys with notions and symbols of innocence and growing up. “Avenue Q” is, first and foremost, a coming of age story for Princeton but it’s more than that. The puppets harken the audience back to their individual childhoods, while teaching lessons that can only be learned in adulthood, a sweet contradiction that the actors carried off effortlessly.
The music was, in a word, stunning. This show is packed with over-the-top musical numbers, with snappy accompaniment, beautiful vocals by the actors, and flawless choreography (puppets and all). If anything, it could’ve been louder, but that’s as close to a bad thing as I have to say about it.
Ultimately, this musical bears incredible messages of reassurance for those at any stage of life, and I couldn’t have been less shocked when the audience immediately rose out of their seats to give a standing ovation. The deftness and class with which the Department of Theatre Arts pulled off this production is nothing short of admirable, really just so good.
All in all, “Avenue Q” is a show about growing up, finding yourself and why one should refrain from throwing pennies off of the Empire State Building. The Department of Theatre Arts closed out their 2017-2018 season with an enormously successful, succinct and snappy show. Can’t wait to see what they’ll have in store for us next year!