DIVA TALK: Ecstasy on Avenue Q Plus Buckley and Carmello on Disc

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01 Aug 2003

Stephanie D'Abruzzo (L) with Lucy T. Slut from <i>Avenue Q</i>.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo (L) with Lucy T. Slut from Avenue Q.

Hello, diva lovers! Congratulations to Lea Salonga, who announced earlier this week that she will wed fiancé Rob Jan. 10, 2004, in Los Angeles. Let's hope the star of Miss Saigon and Flower Drum Song follows her honeymoon with a return to Broadway! . . . Today, we'll journey through the blissful Avenue Q.

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.



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