June 3, 2019 Radomir Vojtech Luza

Review of The Group Repertory Theatre’s Production of “Avenue Q”

If you are interested in a musical complete with puppetry from unconcealed puppeteers that concerns the transition from childhood into adulthood, run do not walk to The Group Repertory Theatre’s production of 
“Avenue Q.”
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty, based on an original concept by Lopez and Marx, running at The Lonny Chapman Theatre in the North Hollywood Arts District through July 7th.
This is the story of a group of friends living on the same street in New York City who begin to notice that life is not the fairy tale or amusement park they though it was as youngsters.  They now
understand that their parents and the television show “Sesame Street” may not have been totally correct in letting them think that they were special and extraordinary.  Existence seems to have other plans for them.
However, on Avenue Q, the past matters little.
The present is a state of mind and a celebration of romance, maturity and bravery.
Because once you run into reality’s wall, you are either bruised forever or learn to climb over it.
The Music and Lyrics by Lopez and Marx strike a heartfelt and soul full chord from first moment to last with groundbreaking, transparent, highly original and semi-controversial, even for today, lyrics about marginally 
taboo subjects such as homosexuality, race and pornography. 
But no matter what we, the audience, think about the lyrical subject matter, the substance and style of the libretto are highly infectious and engaging, like the very characters themselves.
The lyrics and music are witty and graceful, and after a while the puppets seem not only human, but like our best friends.
The singing and puppetry are top notch and rip a hole in the heart the size of the sun.
In the end, if it is music and songs you have come to this theatre for, you have arrived at exactly the correct destination.
Whitty’s Book leads to and interweaves with the Music and Lyrics electrically, achingly and seamlessly.
It is the blueprint of the play.
The book or libretto is the least appreciated and yet most dramatically important element of the evening.
It is the narrative structure that keeps the score from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs.
Here, the book and score interweave to tell a cohesive story.
The original concept by Lopez and Marx is innovative and timeless.
While we drop our dentures laughing and singing along with the actors and their puppets, there is a very serious message here of young adults more and more overlooked, spiritually and emotionally undernourished  
and severely isolated at this time in the universe’s history.
This sobering message of alienation, subjugation and modernization in a world not made by or for these young adults, grabs us, the audience, by the scruff of the collar and drags us begging for less,
allowing the play to take its own course away from cliche, dramatic contamination and catchphrases. 
The Orchestrations and Arrangements by Stephen Oremus are fluid, full and pleasing to the ear.  The notes connect with the lyrics and words as if they were written together.  And perhaps they were.
The Musical Direction by Paul Cady is strong, commanding and furthers the message of the play.
Michele Bernath’s Choreography is beautifully executed with timely steps and stretches.  Taken alone the dancing explains the arc of this unusual and original musical, but together with the rest of the play, it is a
fairy tale and story with its own author.  One the veteran dancer and choreographer writes with precision, passion and poise.
Director Patrick Burke inspires the actors to be themselves and hold nothing back in song or dialogue.
 On the initial matinee that this critic saw the show, The Group Repertory Theatre veteran actor underscored the themes of loneliness and early adult anxiety with an entertaining, emotionally moving, artistically 
nimble and fast-paced show that was also sold-out.
Burke assembles a gifted cast that comprehends the complexities, demands and fluid grace of the music, lyrics and language.
Stand outs include:
Courtney Bruce (Gary Coleman) who almost steals the play with a confident, comical and convincing turn as the late sitcom child star.
The Actors Equity Association union actress, who is making her debut with The Group Repertory Theatre, exhibits a powerful stage presence and spot-on characterization.
Hands on hips, head in the stars, the longtime stage actress seems to be asking us to accept her as she is in this play:Unbridled, spontaneous and her own person.
With glue sticks for fingers, we, the audience, are more than happy to oblige.
But running away with the show is Hartley Powers (Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut) who once again (Last year’s “A Carol Christmas”) proves that being a triple threat is nothing new to her.
Well, if you add the art of puppetry, the stage and screen actress is now a quadruple threat.
Acting since she was 11 months, this buzz saw of a performer leaves no doubt that her commitment to acting is only surpassed by her sensitivity, talent and vulnerability on stage.
 Her song “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” to end Act One brought this critic to tears.  
Powers’ range and artistic instinct can be seen in every drop of golden syllable and syntax.  

The Group Repertory Theatre veteran plays both of her roles with freedom, finesse and funk.
The level of difficulty in capturing two characters as different as Powers’ is off the charts, but the perseverant and accomplished thespian pulls it off with seeming ease.  
This critic hopes to see Powers on the stages of North Hollywood and Los Angeles again very soon.
Furthering the message of the musical are Chris Winfield’s innovative set design, Patrick Dennison’s powerful and viable lighting design, Steve Shaw’s brilliantly modern sound design and 
Stephanie Colet’s supple and rich costume design.
All in all, “Avenue Q” succeeds because of its animated nature, not despite it.
The musical flies and soars over peaks and valleys, and through tunnels and overpasses.
It does what few musicals have ever attempted to do: Make puppets seem human.
This, the 24th longest-running play in Broadway history, deserves credit not for being a children’s show with adult actors, but an adult show with adult actors and themes.
Our parents tell us as children that we are special and can accomplish anything that we put our minds to.
As this show proves, we are all somewhat ordinary and cannot succeed in everything we put our hearts and spirits to.
But, the musical shows this quandary with love, understanding and sympathy, not judgement.
In the end, for better or worse, this avenue is full of young people just living.
And that alone is a beautiful and sumptuous feast to behold and celebrate.
That the Group Repertory Theatre once more chose a groundbreaking musical that thinks outside of the proverbial box is no longer a surprise.
Since taking over the reins, Co-Artistic Directors Larry Eisenberg and Winfield have slowly guided this ship from the murky waters of community theatre fare
to the gulf stream waters of classical and contemporary theatre with courage, class and karma.
“Avenue Q” is merely the last in a long line of triumphs for the pair and the entire ensemble as a whole.
After all, one entity cannot exist without the other.
In this instance, it does not, as both shimmer, shake and shine.
The former in knowing that they made the correct artistic, mainstream and commercial choice yet again, and the latter in hitting their marks and flooring it like the Formula One race cars at the
recent Indianapolis 500.
May both get the checkered flag on Burbank Boulevard as rubber meets asphalt yet again.
Kudos to all involved.
By Radomir Vojtech Luza     Theatre, Film and Book CriticAt the Theatre with Radomir Luza Showtimes:Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PMTalk backs after matinees on June 9th and June 23rdTickets:General Admission: $30.00Students/Seniors with ID: $25.00Groups 10+: $20.00Information/Reservation: (818) 763-5990WHERE: The Group Repertory Theatre at               The Lonny Chapman Theatre,               10900 Burbank Boulevard,               North Hollywood, CA 91601   
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