A Fun, Successful 'Avenue Q' At Playhouse On The Park

It was amusing to arrive at Playhouse on Park for "Avenue Q" and hear the theater touting an upcoming "Young Professionals Night." There were smartly dressed, bright-eyed "young professionals" milling in the lobby, and one of them even introduced the performance.

Oh, what the denizens of "Avenue Q" wouldn't give to be young professionals! This modern musical landmark, still running off Broadway 14 years after taking New York by storm, remains a brilliant, off-beat, indiscreet and occasionally indecent depiction of what it's like to be well-educated, unemployed, purposeless and jobless in New York City. It's "Sesame Street" for slackers and disenchanted world-changers. "You are 22," the theme song goes, "and you live on Avenue Q."

Kyle Brand's production for West Hartford's Playhouse on Park — playing through Oct. 8 — uses the theater's large floor-level stage area to good advantage. You see Avenue Q as not just a row of decrepit brownstones but as a wide tarmac street with curbs. A hard-driving five-piece band is hidden somewhere behind that urban backdrop.

Other key design elements were created for previous professional productions and tours and have been leased to Playhouse on Park. The puppets are in the original style developed by Rick Lyons for "Avenue Q" 15 years ago.

"Avenue Q" was made from the start to be lean and mean, with seven actors handling more than a dozen roles. There's a lot to look at. The puppeteers don't hide behind tables; they're fully present. Sometimes you'll find an actor holding one puppet while speaking the voice of a different one who's being held by a different actor clear across the stage. It's all part of the fun.

A couple of the cast members come with advanced knowledge of what they're doing. EJ Zimmerman, who plays the budding therapist Christmas Eve, was in a national tour of "Avenue Q." Weston Chandler Long, who plays the show's ostensible hero, the uprepared-for-real-world college grad Princeton, as well as the closeted, high-strung Rod, has worked with actual Muppets. Long gives a full-bodied performance, leaping and strutting while manipulating his puppets.

Playhouse on Park regulars Peej Mele (as a succession of funny-voiced critters, including the porn-loving Trekkie Monster) and Ashley Brooke (as both sweet Kate Monster and lascivious Lucy T. Slut) retain the freshness and charm they shared in "[title of show]" last season and add some deft puppetry skills. Brooke nails the love song "There's a Fine Fine Line," delivering it on pitch but also with an expressive brokenhearted crack in her voice.

Also singing divinely is Abena Mensah-Bonsu as washed-up celebrity Gary Coleman, charged with getting the party started for such rousing songs as "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" and "Schadenfreude." James Fairfield does the dumpy-loser bit well as the unfunny comedian Brian. Colleen Welsh provides able, and constant, back-up as everything from the homeless puppet Nicky's left arm to one of the demonically cute "Bad Idea Bears."

Playhouse on Park has had regular success with shows that offer stereotypical, sometimes cartoonish takes on the depravities and demoralizations of New York City. This list could include "Little Shop of Horrors," "[title of show]," "I Hate Hamlet," "A Chorus Line," "Higgins in Harlem" and even "The Chosen" and "Angels in America." Here's another one. They're comfortable here.

AVENUE Q — book by Jeff Whitty, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, directed by Kyle Brand — is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford through Oct. 8. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m., with an added Tuesday matinee Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $17.50-$50. 860-523-5900, playhouseonpark.org.

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