Friday, July 6, 2018

Review of Mercury Theater's Avenue Q

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Avenue Q. The book was by Jeff Whitty and the music and lyrics were by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez. It was directed by L. Walter Stearns, the music director was Eugene Dizon, and the choreographer was Kevin Bellie. It is a musical that uses puppets as a lot of the characters, but also has humans like Sesame Street. Just think of Sesame Street, but without all of the boundaries. It is about a young puppet named Princeton (Jackson Evans) who has just gotten an English Degree and is now trying to find what he should do with the rest of his life. He decides to move to Avenue Q and he meets a young woman named Kate Monster (Leah Morrow) who was a kindergarten teacher who wanted to open up a school for monsters. He also gets to know his neighbors, aspiring comedian Brian (Matthew Miles), recent immigrant from Japan and therapist Christmas Eve (Audrey Billings), roommates Nicky (Dan Smeriglio) and Rod (Christian Siebert), and friendly neighborhood pervert, Trekkie Monster (Jonah D. Winston), who has a very strong opinion about what the internet should be used for. And overseeing it all is Gary Coleman (David S. Robbins), yes, that Gary Coleman, who is the super in Princeton's building. I thought this was a really fun show. It was an absolute blast to watch.

I thought the characters Rod and Nicky had some really funny songs together and they surely went through a journey. They were a lot like what anyone over the age of 13 suspects Ernie and Bert's relationship might be like. They had a song called "If You Were Gay," which was Nicky repeatedly telling Rod that if Rod were gay that would be ok. He'd been suspecting it for a very long time. And Rod just hides behind his book of Broadway Musicals of the 1940s and denies that he's gay. It is super humorous to see this conflict between two people where Nicky knows Rod better than Rod knows himself. "Fantasies Come True" is the song where Rod realizes he may actually have feelings for Nicky. You notice this side of Rod you haven't seen before because he's always been this cranky kind of guy. You notice him being a lot more open and clear-minded, but not for long because you realize it is a dream. When he's awake, he thinks that being gay is terrible, but when he gets to live in his fantasy world, he realizes that the way he is going to be happy is if he really embraces who he is. He gets up and realizes all the things he thought Nicky was saying in the dream weren't real, which kind of defeats him again. It seems like a very realistic emotional thing. You don't think of a show with puppets being an emotional experience, but it really was.

I was also surprised how compelling the romantic relationships were between Kate Monster and Princeton and also Christmas Eve and Brian. They seemed to actually have a lot of big problems, but a song that I think really showcased in a humorous way how people really feel about their significant others is "The More You Ruv Someone," sung by Christmas Eve and Kate, which is about how the more you love someone, the more you want to kill them. You spend a lot of time with them and you get to know them super well, so you love a lot of things about them but you also find things that you hate. It is also really cool to see Kate Monster and Christmas Eve helping each other out with relationship issues. It is compelling to see puppets have relationship problems because usually puppets and cartoons and other things like that take you out of reality, but this pulls you back in and makes you think about things you might not have thought about before. Kate Monster and Princeton had a cute relationship, but they didn't start the romantic part of the relationship in the best way. It becomes a very sexual relationship very quickly because of the influence of alcohol. There are actual problems that come out of it, just like real relationships based on alcohol. (Ed. Note--Ada wanted echoes and sparkles for the word alcohol and is saying it breathily: "like a unicorn would say equality," she says. I wish I had the typography for that.)

Even though there are a lot of touching and realistic moments in this play, it is 95% a comedy. And it was absolutely hilarious. One of my favorite character duos was the Bad Idea Bears (Stephanie Herman and Smeriglio). They showed up several times in the show basically just to give Princeton bad ideas and then scream whenever he would do what they wanted and sob profusely whenever he wouldn't. This show was showing you that bad ideas can be fun--until they are over and then the consequences are not so fun. The Bad Idea Bears are basically the embodiment of that. "The Money Song," when I saw it, went a little bit awry in a very funny way. They were passing a hat in the audience to collect money for Kate Monster's school. Somebody put a glow-in-the-dark condom in the hat and the cast could barely keep it together. The show already had a lot of audience participation, but this was great because you felt like you were sharing a hilarious experience with them that was unexpected for everybody. Even if it was a plant, it was still hilarious and added quite a bit to the show because they seemed so genuinely surprised.

People who would like this show are people who like surprisingly moving puppet musicals, dark humor, and excitable bears. I think that people should definitely go see this show. It was so much fun to watch and had a lot of fun surprises.

Photos: Brett A. Beiner

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review of Lost and Found Productions' Burnham's Dream: The White City

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Burnham's Dream: The White City. The book and lyrics were by June Finfer and the music and lyrics were by Elizabeth Doyle. It was directed by Erik Wagner. The music direction was by Paul W. Thompson and the choreography was by Jessica Texidor. It was about Daniel Burnham (Pavi Proczko) and his partner John Root (Sam Massey) who were both architects who won the contract to build the World's Fair in Chicago in the 1890s. It is about all the challenges they face and how it affects their personal lives. It is also about the people connected to the fair who were less well known and had less power but contributed a lot to the fair. It is about obsession, true freedom, and tearing down relationships while putting up buildings.

I think this is a really interesting idea for a musical and it did acknowledge problems of racism and sexism in the fair, but I would have liked it if they did more than just acknowledge that and explored the problems more and focused more on the people who had gotten less credit for their work than Burnham. I feel like Burnham is a difficult character to root for because he behaves in racist and sexist ways, so it would have been more satisfying to have Ida B. Wells (Arielle Leverett), Margaret Burnham (Laura Degrenia), Michael O'Malley (Chase Wheaton-Werle), and Bertha Palmer (Genevieve Thiers) as the central characters. I think I would have enjoyed a whole musical about building the women's building or Ida B. Wells' protests or the conditions of workers at the fair. I feel like the musical ends in a way that makes it seem like all the problems have been solved even though they haven't created a resolution or actually improved things. So at the end they try to act like everyone has accepted that people should be equal and the world is all in harmony, even though there's not much evidence of that having happened in the show.

I think the most powerful song in the show is "Sweet Land of Liberty." It is one of the songs that isn't the opinion of white men. It is sung by Ida B. Wells when she wants to have a building dedicated to the work of black people. It is all about how she doesn't see America as a land of freedom if people who look like her aren't given basic human rights or a platform to express themselves and be listened to. This is a song that really showcases how Burnham doesn't really care about anyone but himself. The entire time Ida is singing to him, he is going about his daily tasks, showing an exact example of what she's talking about. That is infuriating in multiple ways. A very similar thing happens in the song "Never Marry an Architect," where Margaret is talking about how her husband never pays attention to her because he is always thinking about buildings. And then he comes home and starts seducing her through building puns. But then he announces that he is going away to build the fair and not coming back for months or years. He doesn't even finish his cake. Basically, he again proves the exact point the woman singing has just made.

I did like John Root a lot better as a character because he would actually listen to people and not just interrupt and mansplain for the rest of their song. He also had a really sweet song called "Celestial City," which was about his vision for the fair. He wanted it to be a collage of all of these different cultures where everyone could get along and learn from each other. I think his dream is a lot more clear and well thought through and progressive than Burnham's dream. I would have liked to have more time with Root in the show before he dies. It would have been a lot sadder to know a lot about this character and then have him die. We never meet his wife and I feel like if we did and got to know more about her and other people more impacted by his death, that would have been a lot more heartbreaking.

People who would like this show are people who like celestial cities, brave activists, and architecture puns. I think this is a really interesting idea for a show. I'd love to see a version of this show not so focused on Burnham or one that cast him as the antagonist. I'm sorry I couldn't review this show before it closed.

Photos: Evan Hanover