Review: Moraine Valley Community College’s Avenue Q

Music and Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book: Jeff Whitty
Location: Moraine Valley Community College

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of seeing a friend of mine perform as Brian in Moraine Valley Community College’s production of Avenue Q. I knew he could sing and I knew he could do comedy, but boy that boy can sing! I knew he was talented and committed to his craft but I never fully appreciated to what extent.

No matter what character he plays Brian Whitlock has managed to do something that you rarely see in community theatre and do it consistently: he has been able to melt into his character to the degree where I as an audience member that knows him forgets that this is my friend on stage and instead just see him as the character he plays. Don’t even get me started with his stage presence… I mean seriously, there were times when I know I should be watching others on stage because it is their moment, but Brian just kept stealing my focus at times, he’s just that strong of an actor.

Somehow he managed to sneak a moment to play with one of the puppets (Princeton) during the song: There is Life Outside Your Apartment… but it was a blink or you miss it moment. So when I realized what was going on, I didn’t get a chance to really analyze it, this would probably be a moment where I would love to see the show again so I could simply focus on that moment.

When in the show did this happen? Well it was during the following lyrics:

And a homeless man
Who only wants to
Buy something to eat!
Sorry, can’t help you.

But that was all I was able to decipher… but speaking of puppetry…

Those that were given the task to man the puppets, for the most part I was very impressed with. I don’t know how many of the actors that are required to work with the puppets actually walked in knowing any kind of puppeteering… except for a few moments here and there (which I will explain later), the puppetry in this cast was outstanding for a community theatre production.

Even with the two man puppets (Trekkie Monster and Nicky) the puppeteers did a more than respectable job with their puppets, it was rather impressive. Then again when there is someone on the Production Team (Linda Roberts of Roberts Marionettes) whose job is strictly Puppeteer is it any wonder that she would really put together a strong crash course on puppeteering?

Outside of Brian Whitlock playing Brian… there were other highlights of the production of Avenue Q, including Kendra Sowa who portrays Kate Monster. From the audience some of the comments from around me included how cute and sweet Kendra was and as thus how cute and sweet Kate Monster came out to be. The emotional capacity from pain (in A Fine Fine Line) to passion (You Can Be as Loud as The Hell You Want) to everything else in between she is a talent that just shines onstage.

But what about the remainder of the cast?

Well Trekkie Monster as portrayed by Jim LaPietra and his right hand man (or rather women) was definitely a show stealer… but Trekkie Monster has always been a show stealer in any production of Avenue Q, it is just filling those shoes that tends to come off as daunting. Having Trekkie Monster being the one that provides the voice over for the opening “turn off your cell phones” speech made for one very comedic opening monologue.

Princeton was spot on vocally and character-wise (Benjamin Golay) but I felt that there were times when it felt like the music overwhelmed his singing… either that or whoever was on the soundboard turned his mic down a little too low.

Rod as puppeteered by Ian McCafferty was funny and refreshing and spazzy, but vocally was weaker than I would have liked… as if being in his character voice hindered the singing at times.

Ken Garner and Kara Krueger as the Bad Idea Bears were insanely funny whenever they have had to pop out throughout the show. While Maura Vizza as Mrs Thistletwat was comedic in her execution and portrayal.

Although the puppeteering of Nicky was for the most part incredible there were times when I felt that the right hand (Ken Garner) was slight higher and lagged behind the primary (Jim LaPietra). Another issue with the puppetry came with Lucy the Slut (Carly Churchey) who was a decent vocalist and did a decent characterization… but in attempting to multitask… the whole package fell kind of flat. For some reason when working with the Lucy puppet it did not feel anywhere as natural as it did for some of the other actors that had puppets on stage.

For a cast that has an Asian and Black woman in the script… this particular production had an all white cast which would make most purists (and the average theatre goer) twitchy. However, I firmly believe that if someone is cast against type they should embrace the role completely and just run with it… this was the case for Samm Hilger as Gary Coleman but not so for Christina Pacini who played Christmas Eve.

First the bad… which really isn’t all that bad, Christina is a respectable vocalist and her acting was definitely above average. As I said before: a white actress portraying any kind of minority would not bother me if she were to just run with it and go above and beyond expectations. However, the one thing that really killed it for me was her accent going in an out throughout the course of the show. Sometimes you can believe that she could be Eurasian (which is how I would justify non-Asians playing Asian roles) but her lack of consistency hindered her talents.

Even if she couldn’t get the accent down pat… at bare minimum stick with turning all “r’s” into “l’s” and vice versa… because honestly that is how it is written in most of the script. Without even do that, the role of Christmas Eve was just not believable. The worst of it came when towards the second half of the second act she just dropped accent completely and the character just disappeared and all that was left on the stage was Christina singing and talking as herself.

Keeping in mind that I do believe that Christina has a good singing voice and decent acting skills… but in this role I think the casting could have been better Generally I wouldn’t be nearly as harsh with someone if they were having as much trouble as she did if it were not for the fact that the other mis-cast of the cast did a more than phenomenal job in their role.

Samm Hilger is cute as a button and very enthusiastic… so not Gary Coleman, but her vocals were amazing and her characterization was more than spot on. It felt like she just took the role and ran with it to the edge of the cliff, jumped off said cliff and flew. Once you got over that this was a white girl playing a black male, you couldn’t help but be drawn to her portrayal and realize that honestly it didn’t matter.

I was drawn to Samm… I couldn’t wait to see what she would come up with next, and honestly made me forget the mis-casting. That in and of itself is impressive and a risk that I commend the production team in making and one that I believe that other community theatre groups tend to shy away from. Then again… finding an actor that would be willing to go against type and just dive in, well… that takes a massive leap of faith and trust not just on the part of the production team but the actor in question too.

Meanwhile… I would talk about the set and puppets and videos used throughout the production except they seemed rather verbatim to what was used in the touring and possible Broadway productions of the show. If anything MVCC provided the actors and the musicians and the production team… which allows them to focus more on the vocals, acting and puppeteering.

All in all this is generally an above average production where most other community theatre productions could easily fall flat. The puppeting was far better than I expected for the most part… and aside from one aspect of the cast, for the most part the cast was engaging and entertaining. Then again with this production and this script how could you expect any less?