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Sep 7, 2010 2:35 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Inventive "Avenue Q" at Gateway

Sep 7, 2010 2:35 PM

What an inventive, clever hoot “Avenue Q” is! This winner of three 2004 Tonys (Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book) and a display cabinet full of other awards in New York, London and Tel Aviv, which also holds the honor of being the 21st longest running musical on Broadway, is currently running as the closing show of the Gateway Playhouse’s 61st season.

In its Bellport incarnation, it has so much appeal, so much heart and so much ingeniousness, it fairly bursts from its simple, rundown tenement set by Brittany Loesch.

The show’s resemblance to “Sesame Street” in title and content, if not in purpose, is no accident. Jeff Marx, who worked with Robert Lopez to conceive the show and write its music and lyrics, apprenticed at “Sesame Street” early in his career, and four of the original cast members acted on the kids’ show. But “Avenue Q” is no kindergartner’s romp, nor is it particularly scandalous either.

Trekkie Monster, who looks and sounds very much like Cookie Monster, craves computer porn rather than baked goods. There are words heard in the lyrics that are featured in just about every movie made in the last 10 years, and there’s a sex scene between two puppets that involves puppet nudity. And that’s it.

These puppets, the creation of Rick Lyon, who also made the puppets for the Gateway, journeyed to Bellport and trained the cast in the art of puppeteering. And they’re marvelous and funny, and handled with extraordinary skill and relish by four of the eight on-stage cast members. Doubling and sometimes tripling in puppet characters, dancing and singing, they, with a ballet dancer’s ease, demolish disbelief early on, and involve the audience thoroughly in the lives and struggles of the puppet characters and the three live inhabitants of Avenue Q.

And they do unfailing justice to the delicious and tuneful Lopez and Marx score and bouncy book by the appropriately named Jeff Whitty.

First, the live performers: Carla Hargove, as the building superintendent, named by the show’s creators Gary Coleman, to indicate, possibly, what becomes of child stars when they grow up, delivers strongly as an anchor of reality rooted in compassion. Her socking out of the affirmative “Schadenfreude” to rally her fellow Avenue Q neighbors is a rousing romp.

Michael Edward Baker, as Brian, the aspiring stand-up comedian who finally gets his chance to perform at the Around the Clock Café, and scores with his number, “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” is charmingly accommodating and therefore lovable.

As Christmas Eve, the Asian companion of Brian, who snares him into marriage by announcement, EJ Zimmerman is a spreader of love among the “Avenue Q” puppet populace, and sweetly infectious. Her rendition of “The More You Ruv Someone,” delivered to the despondent and rejected Kate in the second act, is a lovely and touching interlude.

Of the nearly secondary puppet characters, the Bad Idea Bears, a couple of scallywag troublemakers, are handled and given voice by several cast members, including the offstage Lisa Mindelle and Zach Trimmer.

Carrie Cimma, while filling in with some of the more rambunctious puppet characters, has suitable satiric fun with the role of Mrs. T, Kate’s monstrous boss.

Chris Cooke does double duty and double voices with the wacky Trekkie Monster’s rumble and rambunctiousness and with the more human character of Nicky, the roommate of Rod, an upright Republican banker whom Nicky suspects of being gay. Nicky is a free soul, and although he agrees with most of the other Avenue Qers, as he sings with them at the opening “It Sucks To Be Me,” he’s already well on the way to modifying that self analysis. Mr. Cooke conveys this with subtle skill.

Howie Michael Smith, who played his Bellport roles over a thousand times in the Broadway production, is the puppet character Rod, who eventually, with the other characters, finds the true way to a happy life.

But Mr. Smith’s larger creation of life in a puppet is with Princeton, a recent college graduate who arrives at Avenue Q at the opening, convinced that his life sucks because of his college major, lamenting in the song, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”

Princeton, as the musical progresses, sees past Kate’s partial hirsuteness and falls in love with her, and in so doing, progresses in his vow to find a purpose in his life. (At the end of the show, all of the characters find their purpose, too, through a discovery I’ll wait for you to discover by seeing the show.) Mr. Smith is masterful in delineating both characters, without spilling from one into the other.

The truly outstanding performance in this production of “Avenue Q” belongs to Gwen Hollander, who’s called upon to deliver the two most contrasting characters in the show. One is Lucy the Slut, a confirmed tramp who does a vigorously enticing special number at the Around the Clock Café, which Ms. Hollander delivers wildly.

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