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REVIEW: Zesty, Dirty Avenue Q (Chameleon Theatre Circle)

It’s always fun to watch a completely unprepared theatre audience realize just what they bought tickets to. Such a scene unfolded on Saturday night at the Ames Center in Burnsville, when about half of the audience learned that Avenue Q is a) a Sesame Street parody, and b) definitely not a comedy for little kids. It’s quite the comedy for adults, though, and Chameleon Theatre Circle’s staging has a welcome dose of energy and sparkle that’s been missing from some of their more recent productions.

A promotional image for Chameleon Theatre Circle's Avenue Q showing what the Internet is for.
A promotional image for Chameleon Theatre Circle’s Avenue Q showing what the Internet is for.

It’s clear that director Richard William Kopf spent a lot of attention on the puppetry in this production; both the single-rod and live-hands puppets are expressively and intricately worked. It’s impressive to see actors gliding in and out of the chorus to work a puppet arm in the middle of a musical number; the results are especially entertaining as puppets are traded off between actors in some of the more busy scenes. Brad Erickson’s puppets are of high build quality, too; no sock puppets need apply here. All those puppets plus a few human-sized characters means that there’s a lot of action for a cast of 8; whatever amount of running happens behind the scenes doesn’t hurt what happens onstage.

Some standout elements of the production include the hilarious Bad Idea Bears (Nicole Korbisch and Chris Unger) and the to-the-T puppet roommates Rod (Charles Goitia) and Nicky (Marc Berg). Emily Villano’s delivery of the sultry “Special” and Marc Berg’s “If You Were Gay” were especially funny, rolling the audience with laughter. Atim Opaka as Gary Coleman lead the cast in a fiery and lively rendition of “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”. Much of the show’s energy comes from Goitia (previously seen as Frank-N-Furter in CTC’s The Rocky Horror Show) dual turns as comedic foils Princeton and Rod, with a sweet baritone voice and alternately effusive naïvete and sparkling repression, depending on the puppet.

Although racially blind casting is normally a cause that the Arts Reader supports, the decision to cast the (as far as I can tell) Caucasian Lisa Rose Hanson as Christmas Eve is somewhat problematic – while the show certainly pokes fun at Americans’ inaccurate stereotypes about Asians, delivering this in yellowface seems to miss the point behind the satire. This is not a knock against Hanson’s performance itself, but in the current climate it seemed a less-than-ideal decision, especially since there are plenty of talented Asian actors in the Twin Cities.

Avenue Q plays through October 16 at the Ames Center for the Performing Arts in Burnsville, MN.

Basil Considine