Avenue Q is, simply, two hours of pure joy plus a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15-minute intermission. It's rare that I leave a musical without wanting to change a single moment, without one criticism whatsoever. From the melodic, toe-tapping tunes and the witty, hilarious, and often moving lyrics to the wonderfully talented cast, Avenue Q could not be better.
Why is Avenue Q so wonderful, you might ask? Like the award-winning (and unfortunately now ended) sitcom "Seinfeld," it manages to humorously exploit some of the more trivial aspects of day-to-day life, whether it's the joy of receiving a "mix tape" or the "fine, fine line" between a relationship and a "waste of time." The musical — by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty — also hits the proverbial nail on the head of the thoughts and feelings that we all have but often feel too embarrassed to admit — and it does so hilariously and touchingly. Ultimately, Avenue Q beautifully expresses how life is filled with an abundance of joy and pain and how we must revel in the happy times and rise above the negative ones since each only lasts — as the characters sing — "for now."
You'll marvel at the talents of both the charming Stephanie D'Abruzzo — who plays the searching-for-love Kate Monster and the sexy chanteuse Lucy — and the adorable John Tartaglia — who plays the searching-for-a purpose Princeton and the closeted Republican Rod. It's amazing to watch these performers sing and act while they are simultaneously bringing their respective puppets to full, glorious life. And, what's equally astounding, is how D'Abruzzo and Tartaglia are able to each present two totally different characters with distinct spoken and singing voices.
Although they aren't required to man puppets, Ann Harada as Christmas Eve and Natalie Venetia Belcon as Gary Coleman are equally remarkable and provide some of the most exciting vocal moments of the evening. Harada's "The More You Ruv Someone," which blossoms into an all-out torch song, is wonderful, and Belcon lets her belt soar on "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want" and "Schadenfreude." The rest of the cast, which includes comic wannabe Jordan Gelber and puppeteers Rick Lyon and Jennifer Barnhart, are also multi-talented delights.
My only complaint is that I cannot live on Avenue Q, but thankfully I can — and plan to — visit there often.
FOR THE RECORD: Elegies: A Song Cycle
After listening to the new cast recording of William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle, I wondered, "Does Betty Buckley get to sing the best songs in every show, or do they become the best songs because Betty Buckley sings them?" I guess it's an updated version of the chicken/egg question, but when I think about it, the only reason I ever play the cast recordings of 1776, Cats and Triumph of Love, is to hear Buckley's versions of, respectively, "He Plays the Violin," "Memory" and "Serenity," all sung with beauty and power by the Tony-winning actress.
On Elegies, too, Buckley's rendition of "Infinite Joy" almost jumps off the 18-track disc, which contains a wealth of Finn melodies and extremely moving lyrics. Buckley builds the song from a gentle caressing of the opening phrases — "Goodness is rewarded, hope is guaranteed..." — to a forceful declaration that "Life has infinite, infinite jooooyyyyyyys!" There are also infinite joys to be found in Buckley's versions of "Only One" — where she assumes the guise of a strict, disciplined and dying English professor who needs "only one" student who understands what she is teaching — as well as her heartbreaking duet with Christian Borle on "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" and her penultimate solo, "Looking Up."
Carolee Carmello also amazes with her rangy, effortless belt. She is at her best on the wrenching ballad "Anytime (I Am There)," in which a woman dying of cancer pledges she will always be there for her child, "watching it all." She also scores on the haunting World Trade Center ode "Boom Boom" and demonstrates her comic flair with a memory of holidays past, "Passover," singing, "And we’d fight to be the first out of the car, having come this far. Having come so far for this feast, this feast of no yeast. And the matzoh balls are so hard when you cut them, they just fly. Why? Passover." Composer Finn has a knack for making the listener laugh one moment, then suddenly switching gears to a serious moment that makes the song even more touching. In fact, after Carmello jokes about the many idiosyncrasies of her family, she sings, "Uncle Bernie passed over. Uncle Harvey passed over. Nanna Ida passed over and my mother, my mother passed over."
Many of the songs are odes to friends (producer Joseph Papp, composer Jack Eric Williams) now gone, and that fact adds an unexpected poignancy to the lyrics. The songs often refer to those times in life that only later, upon reflection, do we realize how beautiful they were and are now, unfortunately, gone forever. Musically, Finn’s tunes are as catchy as ever: In "Joe Papp" ("Joe Papp never took crap") — perhaps the disc's most toe-tapping offering — Christian Borle and Michael Rupert join Keith Byron Kirk for a rousing tribute to the former Public Theater founder.
Other highlights of the recording include Keith Byron Kirk's remembrance of "Mister Choi & Madame G"; "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving," sung tenderly by Michael Rupert; a tribute to the late character actress Peggy Hewitt — "Peggy Hewitt & Mysty Del Giorno" — who was "incredibly loved and knew it"; "Monica & Mark," about a friend (Monica) made while visiting a mutual friend dying from AIDS (Mark); and Borle’s emotional "When the Earth Stopped Turning."
It's a terrifically talented cast singing beautiful tunes from one of the theatre's most gifted composers. "Elegies: A Song Cycle" is available from Fynsworth Alley.
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: New York's Duplex Cabaret Theatre will also offer a host of other entertainment choices during the month of August. John Bucchino — the acclaimed singer-songwriter whose works have been recorded by Patti LuPone and Barbara Cook — has extended his run and will play Wednesday evenings at 9 PM throughout the month of August. Saturdays in August will feature the sounds of cabaret veteran Baby Jane Dexter, who is currently entering her sixth smash month at the Duplex. Dexter will offer performances at 9 PM. Another cabaret regular, Barbara Fasano, will perform 7 PM shows on Saturdays, Aug. 16 and 23. Fasano's shows include tunes by Julie Gold, Bruce Springsteen and Ervin Drake. Sundays at the Duplex will boast cabaret's Natalie Douglas and Broadway's B. J. Crosby. Douglas, who has been compared to the late Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, will play Sunday evenings at 7 PM. Crosby, most recently on Broadway as Matron "Mama" Morton in Chicago, will belt out tunes Sundays at 9 PM. All shows have a $15 cover and a two-drink minimum. For reservations, call (212) 255-5438. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located in Manhattan at 61 Christopher Street. . . . Complete casting has been announced for the upcoming concert version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion at the Ravinia Festival, Aug. 22 and 23. Joining the previously announced Patti LuPone (Fosca), Audra McDonald (Clara) and Michael Cerveris (Giorgio) will be David Girolmo as Colonel Ricci, David Darlow as Doctor Tambourri, James Rank as Lieutenant Torasso, Paul Alessandro as Sergeant Lombardi, Roger Anderson as Lieutenant Barri, Brian Herriott as Major Rizzolli, Stephen Wallem as Private Augenti, Marilynn Bogetich as Fosca's Mother, Ray Frewen as Fosca's Father, John Clonts as Ludovic and Kymberly Mellen as the Mistress. The ensemble will feature Cory Goodrich and Jacob Langfelder and two other actors to be announced shortly. . . . A new PBS concert special featuring former Phantom of the Opera star Sarah Brightman will premiere in August. "Harem" — based on Brightman's top-selling album of the same name — will debut in the Manhattan area Aug. 13 at 8 PM on WLIW 21 and will go wide nationally in December. Directed by Hannes Rossacher, the special features footage shot in Morocco and Egypt. Brightman performs ten songs in the television program, including such classics as "What a Wonderful World" and "Stranger in Paradise." Other titles include "Harem," "Beautiful," "Mysterious Days," "What You Never Know," "It's a Beautiful Day," "Free," "The War Is Over" and "The Journey Home." . . . The DVD and VHS versions of "Broadway's Lost Treasures" — the upcoming television program saluting classic Tony Award ceremony performances — will feature five additional numbers not seen on the PBS broadcast: Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney performing a song from Sugar Babies; Patti LuPone belting out Evita's "Buenos Aires"; the original company of A Chorus Line singing "I Hope I Get It"; and two numbers from Annie: Dorothy Loudon's "Easy Street" and the company on a reprise of the show's anthem, "Tomorrow." "Broadway's Lost Treasures," hosted by Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach and Chita Rivera, will air in numerous markets throughout the country next month. In the metropolitan area the special will be broadcast on WNET/Thirteen on Aug. 10 at 8 PM. The telecast will feature 17 performances. As part of the annual PBS pledge drive, viewers will also be able to purchase the DVD or video of the program with additional tunes. Beginning Sept. 16, the video and DVD of "Broadway's Lost Treasures" will be available for sale on Playbill On-Line, and it will hit retail stores toward the end of October. Producer Christopher Cohen expects the video/DVD to be priced between $24 and $30.
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Aug. 29-30 at the Stockbridge Cabaret in Stockbridge, MA
Oct. 11 with the Binghamton Philharmonic Pops in Binghamton, NY
Oct. 20 at the 14th Annual New York Cabaret Convention in New York, NY
Jan. 31, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 8, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
May 1, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Barbara Cook in Concert: Sept. 7-8 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL
Sept. 13 at the Tulsa Opera House in Tulsa, OK
Sept. 20 in Bethlehem, PA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Oct. 3 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Aug. 5 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, PA ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Aug. 22-23 in Passion at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL
Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Karen Mason in Concert:
Aug. 8 at the Gala Opening of the Chicago Theater Festival in Chicago, IL
Aug. 15-16 at Odette's in New Hope, PA
Aug. 18 at the King Kong Room in New York, NY
Oct. 4 with the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL
Oct. 18 at the Emelin Theater in NY
Nov. 15 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ
Christiane Noll in Concert
Aug. 28 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 29 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 30 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don Pippin
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!