Monday, December 10, 2018

“Special” “Avenue Q” @ Blank Canvas

It has been said that dying is easy, farce is hard to do!  And, “Avenue Q,” the delightful, satirical, coming of age parable by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is farce at its highest level.

An adult take-off on “Sesame Street,” the catchy tune-filled show, puts a spotlight on porn, issues and anxieties associated with growing up, porn, homosexuality, puppet sex and porn.  Centering on the issue of being a generation that found they were praised for little effort, and being “special” with no need to prove it, the musical not only stars real people, but adult sized puppets, entertaining graphics and puppet nudity.

“Avenue Q,” which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score, has a score made up of such fun memorable songs as “Special,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” ”Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” and “For Now.”  (Hey, this is a farce, not “West Side Story.”)

The story centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate, who is anxious to discover his purpose in life.  Reality sets in when he realizes that his degree in English is an open alley to no job skills, has no place to live, and is dependent upon his parents for money. 

His search for a place to live leads him to Avenue Q, in the low rent district, populated by an eccentric group of neighbors, including Kate Monster, an assistant kindergarten teacher; Rod, an up-tight closeted gay Republican banker; Nicky, Rod's slacker roommate; and Trekkie Monster, a recluse who surfs the Internet all day in search of porn.  They all agree that "It Sucks to Be Me.”

With advice from the Bad Idea Bears, Princeton makes some very bad choices, his neighbors attempt to navigate their rudderless lives and, as happens in all good fairy tales, all ends well “For Now.”

“Much of the show's ironic humor emerges from its contrasts with “Sesame Street,” such as illustrating the differences between innocent childhood and difficult adulthood. The storyline pre-supposes the existence of "monsters" and talking animals, and human actors who sing, dance and interact with puppets, both human and non-human in a light-hearted, quasi-fantasy environment.”

The original script was set on a fictional street in an “outer-outer borough” of New York.  The Blank Canvas version takes place in an unidentified neighborhood of Cleveland, allowing for references to the Terminal Tower, the Browns, moving “upscale” to Cleveland Heights, and wearing CLE clothes.

“Avenue Q” is the type of script that Blank Canvas Artistic Director Pat Ciamacco, does so well.  He knows exactly how to guide a cast to develop believable farce, adds humorous “shtick,” engages the audience, and milks laughs while keeping true to the intent and purpose of the author.  He also knows how to design and build marvelous puppets (along with Dave Haaz-Baroque)!

The cast is outstanding.  They not only smoothly operate the adult-sized puppets, but have developed personalities and voices that perfectly fit every character.  Wow!

Huzzahs to Shane Patrick O’Neill, Leah Smith, Scott Esposito, Trey Gilpin, Luke Scattergood, Anna Sylvester, Neda Spears, Brett DiCello, Katie Gucik, David Turner, Becca Ciamacco and Kate Michalski for forming an ensemble cast without a weak link.  They have great singing voices, do choreography with ease, and nicely texture their characterizations.

Matt Dolan and his raucous band have the difficult task of keeping the volume down in the small black box space and generally do it, while effectively rocking away.

The show is aided by smooth transitions from scene to scene, creative choreography (Katie Zarecki), effective lighting (Jeff Lockshine) and clever projections (Ciamacco and Noah Hrbek).

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Avenue Q” is a well-conceived, delightful, must see production that shows how entertaining and purposeful a play can be with the right director and talented cast.  Most performances are sold out, but it’s well worth the effort to try and get a ticket!
“Avenue Q” runs through December 22, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to