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‘Avenue Q’
Through July 3
Horizon Theatre
1083 Austin Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30307
www.horizontheatre.com

The story finds Princeton falling in and out of love with gut-busting subplots all along the way.

I saw the show for the first time on the last national tour that stopped at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The huge sets, generic but passable actors and special effects didn’t disappoint. Even from the back row, hundreds of feet away from the puppets, it was a captivating show.

I wondered how Horizon would handle a scaled down version. I knew it’d be funny, but I wasn’t prepared for such a vastly different and decidedly better theatrical experience.

If worse comes to worst, the back row at the top of the Horizon Theatre is still an intimate vantage point. The proximity to the audience demands a powerful relationship between actor and puppet that is thankfully carried out by a generally fantastic cast of local players.

Nick Arapoglou plays a wonderful Princeton with a simple, but sublime voice and Mary Nye Bennett works well as a sensitive Kate Monster with tons of subtle humor (if you can catch it over the laughter).

Leslie Bellair takes the cake, though, with her scene-stealing performance as the very Asian neighbor Christmas Eve. Her duet “The More You Ruv Someone” with Bennett might as well have been a solo. Bellair’s voice is a gift, even beyond her comedic skill.

Other notables include Jill Hames as Lucy the Slut and Jeff McKerley as Nicky. Both actors do double duty as the Bad Idea Bears in some of the funniest moments of the show.

Matt Nitchie’s Brian is diminished by the action going on around him, but not to the actor’s discredit. Playing “normal” in a troop of singing and dancing puppets requires subtlety to avoid distraction.

“Avenue Q” at Horizon will be a new experience, even for those who’ve seen other productions.

The writing takes on different meaning in the homier space at Horizon. The same words may be said on the Cobb Energy stage, but it feels more natural on the smaller stage. The sets seem modest at first, but prove creative in their versatility. The relationship between actor, puppet and audience is heightened by a closeness you can’t pay for in a large theatre.

Perhaps furthering allusions to the show’s meager beginnings, several of the cast members play instruments. It’s not quite a Sondheim revival, but J.C. Long (Rod/Trekkie), Spencer Stephens (Gary Coleman/Puppetry Coach) and the ever-talented Bellair can be found jamming with the band at various points of the show.

It’s brave to mount a familiar production, but Horizon executes a delightful return to the show’s organic roots.

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