If you’ve ever wondered why the Human Race Theatre Company continues to be heralded as one of the finest theater troupes in Southwest Ohio, take time to catch its splendidly hilarious production of “Avenue Q,” the risqué recipient of 2004 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Book and Score.
Blessed with brilliantly witty songs by Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon”) and Jeff Marx and a terrifically frank, clever and insightful book by Jeff Whitty (“Bring it On: The Musical”), “Avenue Q” tells a deliciously irreverent story of growing up, making mistakes, assessing regrets, falling in love, embracing identity and discovering purpose within a whimsical New York City neighborhood (impeccably designed with eye-catching graffiti and inspired nuances by Dick Block) where humans and puppets coexist. Borrowing a sunny “Sesame Street” framework, the breezy, R-rated musical dares us to examine our own beliefs and principles by poking fun at everything from racism and poverty to collegiate concerns and gay Republicans. Sometimes the bold, raunchy material is tough to swallow or outright jaw-dropping, but it can also break your heart with striking maturity, particularly when the ups and downs of a budding relationship are treated with deeply palpable poignancy.
The musical’s surefire comedic foundation and knockout entertainment value hasn’t diminished in the consistently reliable hands of director Joe Deer, who also helmed impressive productions of “Crazy for You” (Muse Machine) and “Spring Awakening” (Wright State) this season. Deer not only provides fluidly energetic choreography, allowing this version to surpass the original Broadway production in terms of movement and old-fashioned showmanship, but ensures his skillfully zany cast of eight steps up to the challenge of creating believable, emotionally sound characters. The material feeds the temptation to go over-the top, but it’s wonderful to see this joyfully compatible ensemble, especially those operating and voicing multiple puppets charmingly created in the Jim Henson vein by Zoot Theatre Company co-founder/ artistic director D. Tristan Cupp and adorably clothed by Shirley P. Wasser, aim for greater by achieving genuine, heartfelt sparks without aimlessly wallowing in silly, overdone caricature.
The immensely engaging, effortlessly multi-tasking James Oblak, a pleasant tenor, delivers one of the best performances of the season in the dual roles of Princeton and Rod. As the sincere, soul-searching Princeton, a liberal arts graduate in need of a life coach, Oblak appealingly explores the character’s puzzling uncertainty about his future and masters the romantic awkwardness that keeps him from obtaining true happiness. But as the uptight, snarky Rod, a closeted banker who loves Broadway musicals and secretly pines for his straight roommate, he pulls out the stops by commanding the stage with a mere glance or stance. Oblak simply attacks the fussy role with marvelously expressive vitality in which every fiber of his being encompasses denial, elation and heartbreak, particularly in his fantastic rendition of “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada,” Rod’s amusing and ultimately shameful post-wedding meltdown.
An absolutely heartwarming Katie Pees is equally versatile as Kate Monster, the genial kindergarten teaching assistant attracted to Princeton, and Lucy the Slut, a saucy, curvaceous chanteuse longing to make her prey feel “Special.” Pees, a gifted comedienne who can make anyone laugh with the smallest inflection, seamlessly operates Kate while voicing Lucy in some instances, but her endearing interpretation, firmly grounded with a relatable earnestness on par with Oblak’s portrayals, is most notably solidified in her beautifully tender rendition of Kate’s lovelorn ballad “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” which can be considered the unofficial anthem of the dating world.
Excellently detailed, full-fleshed featured performances are given by the amiable Brett Travis as Rod’s laidback roomie Nicky and porn-adoring Trekkie Monster, the carefree Michael Thomas Walker as aspiring comedian Brian, the utterly delightful and occasionally fiery Michelle Liu Coughlin as Brian’s Asian wife Christmas Eve, the comically upbeat, sarcastic Shawn Storms as building superintendent Gary Coleman, and the super cute duo of Andrew Ian Adams and Annie Kalahurka as the Bad Idea Bears.
John Rensel’s proficient lighting design, Janet G. Powell’s appropriately understated costumes, musical director Sean Michael Flowers’ well balanced six-piece orchestra, and Zach Rosing and Ben Phillippe’s outstanding video design accent this must-see Human Race season finale.
For now “Avenue Q” is where you’ll want to be.
“Avenue Q” continues through June 29 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are June 16 and 23 at 2 p.m., June 11, 18 and 25 at 7 p.m., and June 12-15, 19-22 and 26-29 at 8 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes. Tickets are $41-$45. The production contains adult language/content. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com or www.humanracetheatre.org