By Olivia Popp
“Avenue Q” has always been an underdog musical (one that shockingly won the Tony for Best Musical in 2004), but its sardonic wit and strong grasp of parody made it an instant classic. The New Conservatory Theater Center (NCTC) boldly tackles the now 15-year-old work, seeking to de-problematize (or as much as possible) the elements that make the Sesame Street parody a tricky work to produce.
NCTC brings “Avenue Q” to Bay Area audiences with two casts (the Purple Cast and the Orange Cast). I saw the Purple Cast, featuring extremely strong joint vocal and puppetry performances by Nick Rodrigues (playing Princeton and Rod) as well as Jake Gale (playing Nicky and Trekkie), who the audience learned was actually British once he spoke after the performance, prompting huge applause.
The role of Christmas Eve, who is written in the script as having a heavy accent, was performed masterfully by Isabel Anne To — this time, without an accent. NCTC chose to remove as much of this problematic element as possible, which is a respectable choice. It also shows the effort put in to reducing the elements of the musical that push it beyond the boundaries of simple satire and into potential gray areas, the musical having been written by men not of Asian American descent.
“Avenue Q” is a very formulaic musical, with simple songs (more so, “ditties”) that are catchy and near-direct savage takes on contemporary and millennial issues (“What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” the musical asks). However, this means that the production doesn’t require an expansive set, with the exception of an incredibly cleverly crafted and intricate bed setup (spoiler alert: there’s puppet sex). With a simple apartment backdrop and two stories, NCTC plays into both emotional and physical comedy, with doors slamming and actors popping out of windows. Dance numbers are understandably sparse, but with a purpose — there’s not much from the source material to draw from. Rather, the production seeks to (and very successfully so) bring the musical to a smaller audience and to a smaller scale — going against the very nature of musical theater itself, which the musical already innately does.
Featuring puppets and actors who are very explicitly seen on stage, this was a bold move that was initially seen as completely going against the spectacle of musical theater. However, after a while, you begin to forget about the actors as they seamlessly blend with their characters, matching movements and facial expressions: the puppets and actors become one. Without seeing the actor, you’d actually be missing a crucial element of the performance.
“Avenue Q” at NCTC was a joy to watch. NCTC does an excellent job of taking “Avenue Q” from its already exalted position and taming it for today’s audiences. It even happily takes a crack at Trump, which brought a roar to the audience. If you seek high-quality local musical theater in the Bay, check out NCTC.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.