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Theater Review: 'Avenue Q' a comedic delight at MSMT

It's open season on comedy with "Avenue Q," opening the Greater Lehigh Valley summer theater season and the 35th season of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT), where the show continues through June 28. It's a comedic delight.

This is not your kiddie's "Sesame Street." This is a puppet show for adults, with adult themes, adult humor and a number of expletives undeleted.

And yet, "Avenue Q" underscores family values. It's not typical families. When did you have puppets living next door?

"Avenue Q" is a loosely-plotted musical of close encounters of the emotional kind, from the obligatory Broadway boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl reunite, Kate Monster (puppeteer Kate McMorran) and Princeton (George Primavera); to "Odd Couple" male roommates, Rod (Luke Taylor) and Nicky (Sean Skahill), to an ethnically-diverse couple, Christmas Eve (Lilly Randall) and Brian (Dan Dobro).

MSMT's "Avenue Q" is a fully-realized production, from the wacky, whimsical and wily direction and choreography by Bill Mutimer, to the jaunty, precise and humorous music direction and conducting by Ed Bara of six musicians on 11 instruments, with sound design by Patrick Moren, to the brownstone Brooklyn street by scenic designer Curtis Dretsch, to the lighting design by John McKernon, to the costume design by Lex Gurst, which utilizes black so that the puppeteers don't distract from the puppets.

The puppets are hand puppets, so they've got no strings, and only the torso portions are depicted. It's what you would see if the puppets were behind a raised stage and the puppeteers were below, out of view.

However, the conceit and much of the fun with "Avenue Q" is that the puppeteers are in full view. You see the puppeteers' and the puppets' mouths move when they talk and sing. Instead of being distracting, this adds an extra dimension.

For instance, there's the performance of McMorran, who creates eye contact with her puppet, as though providing a dialogue, and bringing forth a parallel or, in some instances, contrasting, inner emotional life.

McMorran has a beautiful singing voice, especially in her spotlight song, "There's A Fine, Fine Line." She also creates a vibrant character voice for Kate Monster. Her facial expressions are delightful.

Primavera creates a nicely reserved characterization for Princeton and is in fine voice throughout, no more so than in the topically-humorous, "What Do You Do With A BA In English."

The 24 songs (including three reprises) with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez ("Frozen") and Jeff Marx, with the book by Jeff Whitty vary from outrageously funny ("Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" by the 12-member company, which has superb choral singing and harmonies) to sweetly sentimental.(the concluding anthemic "For Now," a guaranteed cabaret classic).

This is a very strong and impressive cast. Cameron Silliman is amazing as Gary Coleman, yes, that Gary Coleman, here as a TV star turned apartment building superintendent. Silliman has dynamic facial expressions, body language and a great voice (the brilliant "Schadenfreude") with Nicky (Sean Skahill).

Other standouts among the cast of standouts are Lily Randall (Christmas Eve) in the very silly "The More You Ruv Someone"; Morgan Reilly (Lucy), who really sells it in "Special," and Luke Taylor (Rod), who is in terrific voice and character.

David Forbes and Meredith Kate Doyle (Bad Idea Bear No. 1 and 2, respectively), Christian Dessler (Trekkie Monster) and Mariah Dalton (Mrs. T) round out the wonderful cast.

The dexterity of the actors, their timing and their flawless performances is impressive in this rollicking production of zany cheerfulness.

What's more, "Avenue Q" in some ways is like puppet therapy. It's educational. It's energizing. And it's fun. Talk to the hand. Get your tickets now.

Tickets: Muhlenberg College box office, Trexler Pavilion for Theater and Dance, 2400 Chew St., Allentown; muhlen-berg.edu/main/academics/theatre-dance/smt; 484-664-3333.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO The cast of 'Avenue Q,' Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre, through June 28, Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theater and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.