Seeing a beloved, highly acclaimed work for the first time, especially long after its debut, comes with a certain amount of trepidation and the sneaking suspicion that it can't possibly live up to the hype. In the case of "Avenue Q", both the show and Mercury Theater's practically perfect production absolutely do.
Ten years on from Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, it's well worth noting how well the show holds up. Both the overarching plot and the individual numbers that confront racism, sexual identity, poverty and privilege could so easily go wrong, yet never seem to. It's not the most profound or nuanced exploration of any of these things, but it's never glib either, and the light touch undoubtedly contributes to its staying power.
Mercury's production features an attractive, functional set by Alan Donahue. It's built on a fairly straightforward Sesame Street-suggestive design that facilitates the crisp entrances and exits so the show never lags. The lighting design by Nick Belley and Jess Goings moves the emotional tone of the show along despite just a handful of scene changes.
It's Russ Walko's puppets, though, that steal the show. From monster to human to dream ballet boxes with draw bridge mouths, Walko's characters and the actors' incredible facility with them bring the show to life.
It seems clear that director L. Walter Stearns and Puppetry Coach Kevin C. Noonchester wisely fostered a variety of styles of interaction. These range from Adam Fane's complete, bordering-on-eerie integration with closeted gay investment banker Rod, to Leah Morrow who manages to convey the sense that she's in conversation with Kate Monster. Rachel Boylan's costumes and Kevin Bellie's choreography round out the picture, making for a seamless design.
The non-puppet-operating cast deserves its own kudos, based on their own considerable merits, but also for their completely natural, convincing interaction with the puppets and their operators. It has to begin as an odd dynamic, but not a hint of that remained in the performance.
In general, the cast is brimming with comic, dramatic and musical talent. The songs are big and demanding, and other than some very minor timing issues in, perhaps, two of the numbers, Eugene Dizon's musical direction fits the voices and instrumentation beautifully to the Mercury's relatively small, brick-fronted space.
As Christmas Eve, Christine Bunuan handles the exaggerated Asian-stereotype dialogue with ease, and "The More You Ruv Someone" absolutely brought down the house as she let the low end of her voice out to play. She and Sean Patrick Fawcett (Brian) also manage to play the old dynamic of the brow-beaten fat guy and his harridan wife with enough tenderness and humor that you can't help but root for them.
Leah Morrow plays Kate Monster's sweetness and take-no-shit short temper with equal skill. Jackson Evans lets his Princeton be exactly as bland, clueless, and self-absorbed as he needs to be, while still making the character charming.
At the risk of repeating myself, Adam Fane's performance as Rod is staggeringly good. Daniel Smeriglio, Stephanie Herman and Thom Van Ermen are extraordinarily able utility puppeteers (I cannot thank them enough for bringing the Bad Idea Bears to joyous, ill-advised life) and make for an absolute dream chorus.
If there is an off note at all here, the fault may lie with the show, rather than the production. On the surface, including Gary Coleman as a character is funny, but it's tough to execute and it dates the show to some extent. Here, Donterrio Johnson has a great voice and clearly throws himself into the role, but there's just something about the concept that doesn't seem to quite gel. In truth, though, the wrinkle is minor and it's something I doubt I'd have noticed if the play had had any other weak spots at all.
"Avenue Q" plays through June 29 at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago. Call 773-325-1700 or visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com for tickets.