It’s one of my pet peeves for a reviewer to spend an entire review cataloging the differences between one production of a show and another production, so I’m glad that Matthew Everett has written a characteristically informative review of Mixed Blood Theatre’s Avenue Q that says nothing about the differences between that production and the original New York production. If you’re unfamiliar with Avenue Q—actually, even if you are familiar with the show—I commend that piece to you.
I’ve seen the touring production of Avenue Q, a close adaptation of the Broadway show, twice. (Here’s my rave review of that production.) Mixed Blood’s production is one of the first independent stagings of the 2002 musical, and it’s an interesting departure. The reviews of the Mixed Blood production—Matthew’s included—have commented on how strong the music and book of Avenue Q are, quite apart from the shock factor of cursing, copulating off-brand Muppets. Indeed, Jack Reuler’s Mixed Blood staging takes Avenue Q a big step away from the original’s explicit satire of Sesame Street.
To start with, the puppets bear much less physical resemblance to their Henson-made inspirations. Kate Monster is a cyclops who you’d never mistake for Betty Lou, and Trekkie Monster is an entirely original creation (Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Michael Sommers is credited as “puppet consultant”) who, except in voice, is no apparent kin to Cookie Monster. One character—Lucy the Slut—is played by Bonni Allen with no puppet at all.
This Avenue Q softens the original’s satirical edge, and plays up the characters’ relationships. Matthew observed how the Asian-American stereotype embodied by the character Christmas Eve is dialed way down in Rose Le Tran’s performance: she has a broad, caricatured accent when the script absolutely requires her to, but when her character relates empathetically to others, the accent diminishes sharply. I don’t think that decision works: if you’re going to mount a show that features a deliberately broad ethnic stereotype, you need to commit to it.
In fact, as Reuler alludes in a program note, one reason Avenue Q is an appropriate show for Mixed Blood to mount (so to speak) is its engagement with issues of race and stereotype. The decision to make Lucy a human rather than a human-looking puppet makes her anti-monster racism less of a joke and more of an uncomfortable reminder of real-world racism. Performed at Mixed Blood’s small space, the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” hits closer to home both literally and figuratively.
Overall, this is a strong production that demonstrates the strength of this musical—I can’t think of a better musical written in this young century. Dialing back the satire allows the material to breathe and expand. (I think there’s a boner joke in there somewhere.)
Photo by Rich Ryan, courtesy Mixed Blood Theatre