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MusicalFare's 'Avenue Q' hits the right notes in 710 Main

Western New York has not yet had its fill of “Avenue Q,” the raucous, clever and frequently filthy musical that beat out “Wicked” for the best musical Tony Award in 2003.

This much was evident in the 710 Main Theatre on Thursday night, when MusicalFare Theatre’s lauded 2012 production of the show was revived to the wild approval of the crowd, whose response grew from nervous chortling to full-fledged laughter during the course of the evening.

Doug Weyand’s production of the show, which promises lighthearted puppetry but delivers risque takes on race and sex with a surprisingly poignant message about personal growth tossed in for good measure, provides a fascinating study in crowd dynamics.

First-time members of “Avenue Q” audiences experience a strange trajectory that involves wading into a pool of uncomfortable humor and waiting for permission to laugh from your fellow audience members.

Puppetry in action in MusicalFare Theatre's "Avenue Q."

Puppetry in action in MusicalFare Theatre's "Avenue Q."

When that permission is finally granted, sometime around the second verse of “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” nothing can stop the torrents of laughter that rip through the audience in response to the show’s felt-covered paeans to Internet pornography, its homoerotic dream ballets, its lurid descriptions of imaginary Canadian girlfriends and, of course, its uncensored, hardcore puppet sex scenes of unprintable intensity and variety.

All of this is fueled by MusicalFare’s perfectly polished production, whose veteran cast members could not be better suited for their roles. This is a true ensemble piece, and every member meets the challenges of their multiple characters with gusto, adding where possible flickers of their own personalities to amp up the hilarity.

Particularly memorable performances come from Amy Jakiel as the prim and proper Kate Monster and the unhinged chanteuse Lucy the Slut, as well as from Charmagne Chi as Christmas Eve, whose absurd characterization she brings to life with her personal brand of “Saturday Night Live”-worthy comic timing and a powerful voice to match.

Marc Sacco does equally well with Princeton, the wayward college grad searching for his purpose, as with the closeted and neurotic Rod, while Jacob Albarella is never less than spot-on as the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster and a variety of other characters. He’s more than ably assisted by Mariz Droz in a variety of roles. Both Dominique Kempf (as Gary Coleman, don’t ask) and Jeffrey Coyle (as out-of-work comedian Brian) are pitch-perfect in their roles as well.

But the person who perhaps deserves top billing is not technically a member of the cast: Puppet-maker and creative genius Adam Kreutinger, whose evocative Jim Henson-inspired fur-balls rival those of original “Avenue Q” puppet-maker Rick Lyon. His creations look great under Chris Cavanagh’s lighting design and on Chris Schenk’s marvelous Brooklynesque street, which looks exactly like it’s supposed to – cozy enough, but just a few blocks outside your average millennial’s comfort zone.

MusicalFare's cast in action during a performance of "Avenue Q."

MusicalFare's cast in action during a performance of "Avenue Q."

More than a decade after the show’s debut, some elements of the show seem slightly dated, especially Rod’s crisis of conscience over his homosexuality. Even so, the humor of that crisis remains in full force.

Aside from some occasional problems in music director Griffin Kramer’s rhythm section, the only serious drawback of the show and the production is that it provides diminishing returns for repeat viewers. “Avenue Q,” unlike multilayered plays and musicals that reveal new strains of emotion and content with each successive viewing, works only on a superficial level.

Perfectly at home in its “Sesame Street”-inspired milieu, it does not lend itself to a director’s fanciful re-imaginings nor cast members’ overly personalized or idiosyncratic performances. It is set in stone – a pretty enough one, but without quite enough facets to reward its most loyal admirers.

More of the cast from MusicalFare Theatre's performance of "Avenue Q."

More of the cast from MusicalFare Theatre's performance of "Avenue Q."

That said, it would be difficult for any company, on Broadway or anywhere else, to come up with a better or more polished version of the show than MusicalFare has conjured here.

No matter how many times we’ve seen it before, this should count as a proud moment for a local company that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade to reach a level of professionalism much missed from this downtown stage.

THEATER REVIEW

MusicalFare Theatre's "Avenue Q"

3.5 stars (out of four)

When: Through April 24

Where: 710 Main Theatre

Tickets: $40

Info: Call 847-1410 or visit 710 Main's website

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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