‘Avenue Q’ in Good Hands at the Millennial

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Millennial Theatre Company continued its association with the Hopewell Theatre, 702 Mahoning Ave., with its latest production of the Broadway musical “Avenue Q,” which opened Friday night.

“Avenue Q” is an offbeat musical that hasn’t gotten a lot of play in this area except for a production at the Youngstown Playhouse in 2013.

If you enjoy Sesame Street you will enjoy this more adult level puppet musical. Now, this is not Little Johnny’s puppet theater. This is a cleverly written and ingeniously constructed puppet musical dealing with more adult subjects than you will ever find with Big Bird and friends.

Princeton, who has recently graduated from college with an English degree, arrives in New York to find an affordable apartment on the fictional street of Avenue Q, in the far reaches of the big city. His neighbors in this run-down slum row are zany and colorful to say the least.

“What Do You Do With a B.A. in English” introduces most of the neighborhood to the audience. Princeton, operated by Ryan Lamb, is a lovable new-to-the-city wide-eyed hopeful who is in search of a job and his purpose. Lamb instills so much humanity into his character that the audience feels all of his joy and pain during is rocky journey. Lamb carries much of the burden of the show and develops his character like a pro. Princeton becomes as human as Lamb.

Kate Monster (Sarah Kinser) tugs at the audience’s heart strings as the lonely kindergarten assistant teacher longing to start a school for monsters. Kinser is ideal in the role of Kate with energy and the ability to develop Kate on numerous levels throughout the show. She offers up a touching scene with her Act I closing song, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” But she also moves easily between the different layers of Kate.

But just as people are different from each other, so are puppets. Rod (Ben Doss) and roommate Nicky (George Maillis) offer an entertaining thread that runs through the show with Nicky thinking Rod is gay, which causes waves in the relationship. Both Doss and Maillis are strong with “If You Were Gay.” Both puppets hold a vague resemblance to Bert and Ernie but Doss and Maillis take Rod and Nicky to a more human level.

Great performances are turned in by Trekkie Monster (Tyler Stouffer) and Lucy the Slut (Brianna Rae Quinn). Trekkie is an oversized fury monster with a voice resembling Cookie Monster. His offbeat look at the world and his fast in-and-out appearances are well handled by Stouffer, adding a gritty edge to the neighborhood. Quinn gives Lucy the perfect sensual sexiness for the cafe number “Special.”

There are three neighbors who are actually puppet-less; Brian (Ryan Stewart), an aspiring, out of work comedian, his girl friend/wife, Christmas Eve (Bernadette Lim), and has-been TV star Gary Coleman (Grayson McCrory). Both Stewart and Lim give strong performances. It has to be tough being an actor on stage with puppets. It is a lot like being on stage with a dog. Everybody watches the dog and forgets the actors. Well, it isn’t any different with puppets but Stewart and Lim more than hold their own.

Other fun character puppets are the Bad Idea Bears (Ty Hanes and Gene Metro) that pop in and out with – you guessed it – bad ideas for Princeton. Mrs. Thistlewat, the old gray-haired kindergarten teacher personifies what you remember your old teachers to be like and Ricky the Newcomer (Daniel Chiaberta) provides the renewal of a new arrival to the neighborhood.

Briana Wagner-Matijevic might be somewhat overlooked but has a difficult job. She provides the “second hand” to a couple of puppets. She doesn’t speak for the puppet but has to be just as involved as if she had all of the dialogue. Not easy when you don’t have anything to say. She excels.

All of the actors/puppet operators pull double duty and do it excessively well. Not only do they act and manipulate the puppet but must also act the character themselves. They are extensions of the puppet characters. The audiences finds themselves watching both the puppet and the actor.

There are many clever moments in this show. Musical standouts were: “It Sucks To Be Me,” “Purpose,” done with cardboard boxes, “Everyone’s a Little Racist,” “The Internet Is For Porn.” “My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada,” “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” and “For Now.”

“Avenue Q” owes a lot to its “Sesame Street” ancestor. Whereas “Street” taught many of us how to count, our ABCs and other gems of our young existence, “Q” takes the same approach to more adult situations like racism, homosexuality and finding one’s purpose or reason for being. Writers Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty have tailored a “Sesame Street” cousin for grown-ups.

Set design by Joe Asente is a realistic detailed slum row complete with beat up garbage cans, dirt on the street and laundry strung between two buildings. Looks a lot like Hells Kitchen in New York. It provides the perfect backdrop with the addition of short little “teaching” videos, which are very cleverly designed.

Asente also directed and served as musical director. Puppet design by Lynn Ohle and Out of Hand Puppets is first rate in every detail. These are as professional as you will find in New York or Los Angeles. Fantastic work.

The Millennial Theatre Company, 702 Mahoning Ave., continues to top itself with each outing. Joe Asente has indeed created a theater with a unique twist that churns out nothing but the finest in area entertainment.

“Avenue Q” is a unique experience. Catch it while you can – may not be back for awhile. But make your reservations sooner than later. Seats are filling up.

“Avenue Q” will continue Jan. 21, 27, 28, 29 at 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 22, 28, 29 at 2 p.m.

Pictured at top: Daniel Chiaberta and George Maillis are part of the cast of Millennial Theatre Company’s production of “Avenue Q.”

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