What’s on in Eugene? REVIEW: Avenue Q at Actors Cabaret

The Bad Idea Bears and Princeton

For most people (older than, say, 13 – though there’s plenty of swearing and graphic puppet sex, so your mileage may vary on how old your kid needs to be to see this show), Avenue Q means an evening of semi-shocked and delighted laughter. If you missed the production at the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company earlier this season but you like the songs and/or the characters and/or you’re interested in seeing how the Muppets on Sesame Street might have grown up, you need to get tickets to the Actors Cabaret of Eugene performance.

Despite the normal pain of dealing with recorded music instead of live musicians (that’s a cramped area – no way to fit in the live players), the ACE crew deftly handles the complexities of this puppet-heavy production and makes sweet, funny work of it. ACE is a dinner theater; if you eat, tickets are $41.95 or $35.95 at matinees – but you can also just buy drinks and dessert (which comes out at intermission) or only a ticket, and that’s $16-$27, depending on where you sit. More info and online buying here.

On Saturday of opening weekend, much of the audience clearly hadn’t heard the songs before, and many people emitted barks or snorts of surprised laughter at the sexually frank lines and songs like “The Internet Is for Porn.” The energy of the musical, with songs piling rapidly on top of one another and an enjoyably inventive puppet sex scene (I think Kate Monster has been watching the “Bend Over Boyfriend” DVDs quite a lot), doesn’t let up from the opening scene through the intermission. Post-intermission serves as a time for re-evaluation and rebuilding and rediscovery, and it’s a bit calmer, wiser, older – and it features the wonderfully apt “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” which had every adult in the audience nodding wryly along.

Nicky and Rod, the bickering roommates; photo by Jim Roberts

Avenue Q won the Tony for Best Musical in 2004, but that doesn’t make it perfect. Its issues transfer to ACE as they did to the Leebrick earlier this season, though some things are different because of casting. When I first heard that ACE had cast a white actor in the role of Avenue Q’s Christmas Eve, I thought that was both weird and disturbing.

I don’t like it when people of other ethnicities get cast instead of Asian-American actors in roles specifically written for Asian Americans (see: Jonathan Pryce cast in Miss Saigon – a formative moment for Asian-American actors and the theatre community as a whole).

And yet Christmas Eve … well, let’s say the role itself has some problems. She comes onstage during the cast-introducing “It Sucks to Be Me” and instantly plays on stereotypes of Japanese accents during her part of the song. (Some people have wondered how a woman with two master’s degrees, as we hear her state several times, could sound as if she’d just started to speak English.) A portion of the show’s comedy focuses on Christmas Eve’s friends laughing at the way she pronounces the letter l, and more than a little of the laughter during the ballad “The More You Love Someone” comes from the audience laughing at the way she pronounces the word love. So perhaps the fact that ACE cast Melissa Miller in the role was intended to point up the bizarreness of this hipster-racist character? I don’t know, but Miller has a lovely voice and did a fine job playing the character.

When Avenue Q debuted back in 2003, I didn’t anticipate that parts of it would soon feel dated. All right, by “soon” I mean nine years later – almost a decade of Avenue Q?! – but seriously, even in the early 2000s, a song called “Mix Tape” wasn’t exactly right. I’ve always felt that the musical was written by, and for, people about my age (book writer Jeff Whitty, originally from Coos Bay, is about a year older than I). Would Rod still be in the closet if the musical were set in 2012? Doubtful.

But let’s look at late Gen Xers. We’re people who were indeed still making mix tapes in our late teens and early twenties, people who watched a lot of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show in our youth, people who left college during a recession (no, the mid-1990s weren’t a job picnic, Millennials – you’re not the only ones having a hard time post-college, as the character of Princeton makes it all too clear), people who started using the Internet when it was overrun by porn. Seriously, if you remember the search engine AltaVista (or Ask Jeeves, or any number of pre-Google searches), Avenue Q is like watching the history of our 20s spool out onstage. Generation X discovers alcohol, sex, disappointment; Gen X can’t get a job and falls into debt; Gen X can’t figure out its purpose, whatever that might be; Gen X can’t quite admit it’s gay and makes up a fake girlfriend (yes, I once invented a fake boyfriend, though not as fake as Rod’s “Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”).

That said, the actors playing the characters aren’t part of Gen X (we’re too old to play recent college kids – yep, it’s true). This cast does a fine job with it though. Props to Samantha White, who plays Kate Monster with a combination of bravado and vulnerability; Mark Van Beever, who plays Rod with a blunt sweetness; and Cody Mendonca, who makes a good privileged/frustrated Princeton, Cameron Walker as the icky Trekkie Monster and the rest of the cast.

Don’t take the kids, and do plan to be confronted with some potentially problematic songs (“Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” might be my least favorite musical number since “A Puzzlement” in The King and I), but for a funny, fast-paced, sexy romp, Avenue Q’s a good bet this weekend (or any weekend through April 7).

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